Review: Ironskin by Tina Connolly

I’ve said it before, and I’ll reiterate: I do not take authors messing with my Jane Eyre lightly. If you are going to attempt to paint a new gloss over something that has already been perfected to my eyes, you’re going to have to bring something completely new to the table. In this regard, I applaud Connolly’s efforts to entwine a fey glamour over the well known Bronte tale, but I can’t say that she pulled off all she hoped to achieve.

Ironskin suffers from a dissonance between Connolly’s desire to adapt Jane Eyre and her desire to write an original fantasy work. The result feels like Connolly’s take on how she would have written Jane Eyre had she gotten first crack at it rather than a reimagining or tribute. Nevertheless, Connolly introduces some interesting ideas and I can’t help but feel that she ultimately did herself a disservice by trying to shoehorn her story into such a well-known mould; she would have done better to eschew comparisons and simply tell her own tale.

Ironskin by Tina Connolly

Jane Eliot is fundamentally different than Jane Eyre. Perhaps, considering our own reactions were we placed in Jane Eyre’s shoes, many of us feel that Jane Eyre should have felt rage at her situation, yet the very fact that she didn’t defines her character. It’s what sets her apart from and above her peers, what gives her the beauty that shines through an ordinary exterior. Where Jane Eliot allows the rage to take root, Jane Eyre lived above it. Where Jane Eliot yearns for normality badly enough to take drastic, disturbing measures to achieve it, Jane Eyre accepted herself with pride and grace if not always with pleasure. This was one of my biggest points of contention with the book, for in the original it is Rochester who needs reminding that Jane is as she is and won’t be changed. In Ironskin, it is Jane herself who succumbs to shallow desires and embraces superficiality. Making the decision a supposedly crucial plot point does nothing to lessen my disappointment in Jane’s decision and underscores the fact that this is not the same Jane I’ve come to love.

Rochert had potential as a reincarnation of Rochester yet, like so many who have tried before, Connolly fails to grasp Rochester’s essential nature. His depiction quite confused me, really. We are told of his internal suffering, but it doesn’t truly play out on the page. Before we learn of his deep, dark secret, I had actually gained the impression that he was in fact a warm man, loving of his daughter and wife both, not doggedly attempting to hold back the defeating force of his past as Rochester was. We are given so little page time with Rochert that he is never fleshed out (never mind the utter lack of chemistry between him and Jane). I rather liked the dimension Connolly added with his somewhat addled composure concerning the fey, but this too is inadequately addressed.

The greatest interpretations of character for me were Dorie and Poule, as Jane must work at her relationship with both much moreso than in the original. Though I never warmed to Dorie (in truth, she freaks me out more than a little), her storyline was one of the few that suggested the story would have been better off told as an original work. Poule also intrigued me, particularly as she and Jane formed something of a team here, so unlike Jane’s wary regard of Poole in the original. I wish we could have learned a bit more about Poule’s heritage, as it was one of several threads of fantasy worldbuilding that offered a promising story yet was not fully explained.

Overall, I couldn’t tell if Connolly truly wanted to retell our beloved story. Aside from the character names and a rough outline of the plot, so few critical elements of the original story remain. The pacing barely reflects that of the original, throwing Jane into her new employ on the first page, rearranging key scenes and completely eliminating the character of St. John. Whether this is meant to be a permanent feature of the series or whether Connolly introduces St. John in the next book remains to be seen. Jane’s background is completely altered, which likely goes far in explaining her drastic personality change. Whereas the unforgiving environments of her aunt’s home and Lowood shaped Jane Eyre into a strong woman determined to resist the scorn thrust upon her lowly station, Jane Eliot’s abrupt reversal of fortune at a later age made her resentful and proud.

Ultimately, Connolly seemed to want to write a fantasy, and Jane and Rochert’s relationship suffered for it. While her take on the bedroom scene is a novel change, it failed to make up for the numerous other iconic interactions that defined both characters in the original, yet that were missing from this novel. Though I was initially intrigued by the mask plotline, this too wound but being merely a grotesque externalization of conflict that distorted the subtle genius of the original.

I was also confused by Connolly’s repeated references to other classic works. Surely Bronte was influenced by those who came before her, yet she allowed those guiding voices to shape her story without stealing heavy-handed elements. Connolly not only mentions tales such as Beauty and the Beast and Tam Lin, but she goes so far as to incorporate threads of these tales into the story, which merely adds to the disjointed feel. It’s a shame, since, divorced from recollections of her predecessor, I rather liked Jane. The fey world Connolly has created seems rather fascinating, but we are given the barest glimpses of it. I’m also not quite sure that this work is best described as steampunk, but that characterization will suffice. Overall, Ironskin had promise, but ambivalence regarding the extent to which this was meant to be a retelling ultimately resulted in a failed execution of interesting ideas.

Beneath the Dust Jacket: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Beneath the Dust Jacket is a new feature in which I spotlight some exceptionally pretty books and the little artistic details that set them apart.

The Night Circus has been one of my favorite reads this year. Reading this novel was a beautifully sensory experience, even apart from Morgenstern’s lushly vivid descriptions of the circus and its inhabitants. The book itself is one of the most gorgeous books that I own. The cover is gilded, the pages have a lovely weight to them, and the illustrations are as darkly ethereal as the prose.

Review: His Heart’s Obsession by Alex Beecroft

A few pages into His Heart’s Obsession, I had steeled myself for an erotic story filled with mutual lust and not much else. So I was pleasantly surprised to find that Beecroft’s novella actually was not the mindless erotica that I had anticipated, but rather a heartwarming love story that packed a surprising punch for its mere eighty pages.
One thing that impressed me right off the bat was Beecroft’s abililty to provide enough atmosphere to enhance her worldbuilding while not detracting from the growing relationship between Robert and Hal, which, for a story this short, needed to take

His Heart’s Obsession by Alex Beecroft

center stage. Yet the descriptions she does provide of life at sea and in the Jamaican colonies is just enough to add flavor to her tale and set it apart from countless other historical romances.

Robert and Hal weren’t quite as fleshed-out as I would have liked them to be, but it’s understandable given the tiny page count. Even so, both men defied my expectations; while their relationship reached the expected destination, the journey was atypical. There was no instant infatuation here, nor, indeed, did one party’s feelings shift overnight simply as a result of a love revelation. It was refreshing to witness two participants in a courtship actually think through the basis for their feelings (or lack thereof) and the ramifications of their actions rather than diving headfirst, acting on passion alone. While William was a wasted opportunity for a secondary character, serving mainly as a foil for the leads, Isobel offered just enough interest to make me hope that Beecroft gives her her own novella in the future.

Unfortunately, my enjoyment of the story was marred somewhat by Beecroft’s overly flowery language. Nearly every page featured metaphors and, of more concern, confusing sentences that got caught up in their own descriptive device. Beecroft’s story could have benefitted from another round of editing, but in all, it provided me with an hour of light entertainment and an unexpectedly original romance.

Book Beginnings on Fridays

Book Beginnings on Fridays is a meme hosted at Rose City Reader designed to feature the book you are reading right now by sharing the first few lines of the story.

This weekend I’m hoping to read Austenland by Shannon Hale.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a thirty-something woman

Austenland by Shannon Hale

in possession of a satisfying career and fabulous hairdo must be in want of very little, and Jane Hayes, pretty enough and clever enough, was certainly thought to have little to distress her.”

I read Hale’s The Goose Girl last year and was charmed by her ability to spin yarns of adapted fairy tales. I’m hoping her foray into adult fiction is as effortlessly sweet.

Here’s the summary, taken from Goodreads:

Jane Hayes is a seemingly normal young New Yorker, but she has a secret. Her obsession with Mr. Darcy, as played by Colin Firth in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, is ruining her love life: no real man can compare. But when a wealthy relative bequeaths her a trip to an English resort catering to Austen-crazed women, Jane’s fantasies of meeting the perfect Regency-era gentleman suddenly become realer than she ever could have imagined.

Decked out in empire-waist gowns, Jane struggles to master Regency etiquette and flirts with gardeners and gentlemen;or maybe even, she suspects, with the actors who are playing them. It’s all a game, Jane knows. And yet the longer she stays, the more her insecurities seem to fall away, and the more she wonders: Is she about to kick the Austen obsession for good, or could all her dreams actually culminate in a Mr. Darcy of her own?

Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

It’s been quite a while since I’ve been thoroughly swept up by a story. Even rarer still is the urge to savor each and every last word, whiling away the entire day simply immersed in words. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern took me by surprise, denying me my staunch speed-reading tendencies in favor of a long, lazy day soaking up the fantastical world described within.

I’m not usually a fan of flowery prose, and so was prepared to side with those readers who felt that this book’s flashy show didn’t make up for a lack of substance. While Morgenstern was undoubtedly aiming for a crowd-pleaser with her novel detailing the mysterious workings of this nomadic nightly circus, it has wound up being rather divisive amongst readers who either love it or hate it. I place much of this blame on the publishers, who through a misleading jacket blurb and marketing campaign mistakenly touted this novel as a story of fierce rivalry and heated competition. While the competition is a central, necessary element through which the plot unfolds, it’s certainly not an action-packed affair. Those readers hoping for a story about bitter foes and grand spectacles were likely disappointed to find instead a quiet, meandering tale of subtle acts of love.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Morgenstern’s fledgling effort certainly isn’t without faults. Reviewers criticizing the inadequate character development, unexplained worldbuilding, and confusing conclusion have valid complaints. In other circumstances, these flaws would be enough to mar my enjoyment of the book (indeed, characters and plot are the two essential facets of a story, and if done poorly, there’s probably not much left to recommend your writing). Yet what these reviewers don’t realize is that, while Celia and Marco are, in a sense, the story’s protagonists, they are nevertheless not the main characters. That honor goes to the circus itself, and the exquisite care with which Morgenstern describes this particular character does more than enough to make up for the less-than-fleshed-out string of secondary characters. Likewise, while Morgenstern might not manage to convincingly convey the mechanics behind the competition and the magicians’ resultant connection to the circus, these plot holes are mere quibbles when one considers the story to be merely a vehicle through which the audience is able to experience the circus for themselves.

I normally skip over lengthy passages of mere description, yet I couldn’t bear to spare even a single line of The Night Circus the attention it deserved. The Night Circus is a book whose strength lies in its imagery and the atmosphere it creates. The nonlinear storyline and shifting perspectives enhance the otherworldly quality of the circus itself. I’m likely overlooking many mishaps that would prove fatal in another book, but my opinion represents the sheer wonder I felt while immersed in Morgenstern’s world. The Night Circus isn’t a perfect book, but I’ll be darned if it didn’t feel that way as the pages flipped past.

Review: Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier

I adore fairy tale retellings. While some scoff at the simplistic lessons and unrealistic conclusions to these stories that held us all enthralled as children, I’ve yet to allow the cynical hand of adulthood leach the wonder out of these classic tales. There is a reason why we cling so eagerly to them in our youth, and why they have endured in countless iterations throughout generations and across cultural ties. They speak to a part of us that never tires of contemplating the potential for hope and happiness, no matter how improbable the odds or circumstances.

While I’ve long heard Juliet Marillier’s praises sung, for some reason, I’ve never before picked up one of her novels. Yet today I found I could no longer ignore the reviews that hailed Daughter of the Forest as one of the best fairy tale adaptations to date, and I’m glad I finally gave Marillier a chance, because her tale did not disappoint. Her take on

Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier

the Celtic tale of Wild Swans is epic in emotional impact if not in action. This is a tale in which a woman must strive to become her own savior and that of her family; her strength is not questioned and discounted by those around her, and she delivers on her promise, quietly suffering to fulfill the salvation that only she can bring about.

I often find fault in heroines whose innate goodness seems unmarred. Though unfortunate circumstances are heaped upon their shoulders, they bear it stoically and kindly, and we the readers know the vast injustice that they face to bravely. Sorcha could easily have come across as this type of heroine, and in truth, Marillier does little to create the faults that might otherwise be necessary to flesh her out into a believable character. As it is, Sorcha’s unwavering resolution in carrying out her mission seems more than any one person could hope to undertake. Yet I never felt resentful toward Sorcha as I so often do toward heroines whose qualities are irreproachable. Perhaps it owes to the weight of the tasks she is forced to perform and the isolation in which she exists for three years, but each time some new adversity was forced upon her, I could not help but long for the day when Sorcha’s accomplishments would be acknowledged, no matter how unlikely their achievement might seem in real life. For what else is the purpose of fairy tales but to make the improbable seem possible?

For most of the book, I adored Sorcha’s relationship with her brothers. Often, when so many characters are introduced, particularly in a familial setting, it becomes inevitable that some of their personalities fail to distinguish themselves. Yet Marillier succeeds brilliantly in creating each of Sorcha’s brothers as distinct characters, ones whose love for their sister and heartbreak over their fortune makes the reader all the more sympathetic to the necessity of Sorcha’s success in her endeavors. It was due to Marillier’s success in evoking my emotional investment in Sorcha’s brothers that I was so upset by their attitude towards her after their curse is finally lifted. Maybe Marillier wished to contrast the effects of the curse on the male and female figures involved, showing a stunt in growth on the brothers’ part that stood out against Sorcha’s emotional development. Yet whatever the case, her brothers’ failure or disinclination to take Sorcha’s own desires and happiness into account after all she had sacrificed for them was disheartening. It undermined the very strength of sibling bond that justified and necessitated the heartbreak that has sustained the story thus far.

I’ve read many reviews that debate Sorcha’s decision to stay with Red rather than Simon. Suffice it to say, after finishing the story, I’m not sure how this can even be a topic of discussion. Sorcha’s connection to Simon was fleeting at best, and founded on the same superficial hopes that the tales she recounted to him warned against. While many lament the fact that, in contrast to Simon’s colorful energy, Red is too boring and unemotional to warrant Sorcha’s love, I found Marillier’s slow and subtle evolution of Sorcha and Red’s romance utterly charming. Red is exactly the type of hero I prefer in my stories, fairy tale or otherwise. His emotions simmer below the surface, yet they are fiercely present to those who know to search for it. His ambitions and desires reflect the mature mind that Sorcha needs upon emergence from the traumas of her childhood. Even had she been given the chance to get to know Simon better, he could offer her little more than the idealistic dreams sprung from youthful fantasy.

I’m glad I’ve finally given Marillier the attention she deserves as a masterful teller of tales told many times before. The ability to make such a story seem at once fresh and enchanting is a rare talent, and I look forward to reading more from her in the future.

Review: Froi of the Exiles by Melina Marchetta

As I’ve mentioned before, I am a huge Melina Marchetta fan, and her fantasy debut Finnikin of the Rock cemented my love for her writing. Yet despite how wrapped up I got in Finnikin, I did find it to be rather slow going at times. Marchetta doesn’t skimp on the details of the worlds she creates, and becoming acquainted with the various lands and peoples of fantasy fiction often proves one of my primary challenges while reading the genre.

At twice the length of its predecessor, Froi of the Exiles is a hefty book. To be blunt, it’s

Froi of the Exiles by Melina Marchetta

bloated. Six-hundred pages are devoted to political intrigue, deception, and foretold prophecy, yet the substance could have been conveyed easily and more successfully in half the space. Yet, Froi‘s excessive length serves a purpose beyond mere disinclination to edit. To cut out the pages where tensions drag and emotions recirculate to the same conclusions would be to diminish the desperation that serves as Froi’core.

I had high expectations going into Froi, and to be honest I’m not sure they were entirely met. I remain invested in the story despite being detached from the characters. In Finnikin, while I didn’t adore either Isaboe or Finnikin, I understood what made them tick, and so I threw them my support. While I found some interesting characters introduced in Froi, they failed to earn my love as have the characters of most series that I anticipate with the fervor that I do The Lumatére Chronicles. By all accounts, Quintana should be one of my favorite characters of the series, and she might yet fulfill that role. For now, I’m keeping a cautious distance, because while I might not love the characters from Lumatére that we first met in Finnikin, I do like them, and I sense that Quintana could wreak some havoc on their happiness before events are finished. Still, Quintana holds my interest in a way that Isaboe never has; her lot in life has been equally as destructive, if in a different fashion, yet I suspect that Isaboe’s pride would not have allowed her to cope in the way that Quintana necessarily has. Both women are survivors, but their methods are so strikingly different. Both are fierce, with Isaboe displaying that ferocity with noble strength while Quintana adopts a feral, instinctive manner.

Unfortunately, while I’m intrigued by Quintana, I wasn’t sold on her desire or capacity to form a relationship with Froi, let alone the intimate one that they forge. I have no doubt that Quintana is capable of moving past the emotional damage that she has had to bear. I find it safe to say that she isn’t there yet, though, and likely won’t be at least until she is able to control her urge to snarl at threats and annoyances. Perhaps Froi’s seduction was a necessary step toward her ultimate healing, but my emotions weren’t swept up in the act the way I felt Marchetta hoped for them to be.

In contrast to Quintana’s layers, Froi came across as regrettably flat. He held the weight of the book, indeed, perhaps the entire series, upon his shoulders, yet he never emerges as his own man. When we first met Froi in Finnikin, I couldn’t wait to see how Marchetta would set about redeeming this seemingly reprehensible boy. Based on the one chapter we were granted through Froi’s eyes, I thought I understood Marchetta’s plans for Froi, allowing the readers to witness his slow transformation from misled boy to man. Instead, Marchetta chose to begin Froi three years after Finnikin‘s conclusion, thereby robbing readers of the opportunity to journey with Froi through his confused emotional development. When we meet up with Froi again, he has already processed the feelings with which he was just beginning to grapple at Finnikin‘s end. We are told of his loyalty to Isaboe and Finnikin, of his understanding that his past was reproachful, yet in the gap between youth and manhood I sense little of the old Froi whose narration I was looking forward to. While he was an adequate conduit to tell the story, I didn’t miss his perspective when Marchetta switched to stories on the sidelines. Marchetta’s trademark humor could well have found a place in Froi’s thoughts, and its omission wasn’t necessary to lend gravity to an already grim narrative.

Some might feel that Isaboe and Finnikin’s scenes were unnecessary filler, but I rather enjoyed the glimpses into their married life as queen and her king. In contrast to the dire events occurring in Charyn, Isaboe and Finnikin’s banter was a welcome reprieve. Where off-page passage of time hurt Froi’s development, it worked well here, as witnessing the couple’s happily-ever-after in real time would have come across as maudlin. Instead, it feels as if we are simply given a peek into the life of a well-adjusted couple, a life with flaws and joys, one that isn’t demeaned by contrived strife or artificial obstacles.

Many readers lament the amount of sex and violence in this volume. While Finnikin wasn’t altogether innocent on this front, there’s no doubt that Froi turns up the volume on both counts, yet it doesn’t feel gratuitous. This series is no fairy tale, and Marchetta clearly trusts her readers to grasp the significance behind the events that unfold. This series is an excellent example of narrow-minded genre labeling, because I’m not sure exactly what is young adult about this story apart from the characters’ ages. Had the publisher swapped the colorful, character-based covers for ones in subdued tones focusing on setting, the books could easily be shelved in the fantasy section, and adult readers would be none the wiser. Many of the story’s nuances will likely go over younger readers’ heads, and even so there is abundant material here that requires a mature temperament to appreciate its significance.

Overall, the tale that Marchetta is slowly weaving has my attention captured even if my sympathies have yet to be drawn to any character in particular. It’s a rare feat that an author so enthralls me without similarly endearing me to her characters, yet Marchetta is no common author. Even at her worst, her writing soars above the rest.