Copperhead is the sequel to Tina Connolly’s book, Ironskin (Grade: A-). It’s not a romance novel, although there is a romance. It’s a great work of historical fantasy with some steampunk elements and a strong feminist theme.
Ironskin was a loose re-telling of Jane Eyre, in an England that is reeling from the effects of the Great War with the fey (it’s roughly analogous to England in the early 1900s). Copperhead is set slightly after the events of Ironskin and is about Jane’s sister, Helen. Jane always felt that Helen was spoiled by staying home with their mother during the war, and that Helen is frivolous. So many people have told Helen that she is silly and inept that she’s come to believe it, but she’s become determined to help Jane in her work against the fey, and when Jane disappears Helen has to take the lead.
Watching Helen discover her own strengths is intensely satisfying. Before the events of Ironskin, Helen had married a rich man, Alastair. Alistair is very concerned about Helen fitting in and “keeping up appearances”. We hate him. Anyway, he convinced Helen to have a fashionable procedure done which gave her a new face – a fey face. It’s essentially her own face, but highly idealized. Alistair points out that with this new, perfect face, no one will notice Helen’s freckles or the “bump on her nose”. And because she will be so beautiful, people also won’t notice if she uses the wrong fork at dinner or anything. Did I mention that we hate Alistair with all the burning flames of a thousand suns? Hate, hate, hate.
By the time Copperhead begins, Jane has discovered that the fey can actually take women over by using the traces of fey in their new faces, and she wants to convince the stylish women to go back to their old faces (it’s a messy magical and surgical procedure). Unfortunately, though Jane has many talents and is an admirable and heroic person, her people skills are terrible. Helen, on the other hand, is great at talking people into doing things, so she plans to help Jane convince The Hundred (the women with fey faces) and have Jane do everything else. When Jane is implicated in a murder and disappears, Helen suddenly has to figure out where Jane is, save an orphan, dodge her increasingly possessive and restrictive husband, and figure out what’s going on with the new organization, ‘Copperhead’, and who this guy 'Rook' is, who keeps following her around.
Copperhead benefits by not following any previous literary model (as Ironskin followed Jane Eyre). The story is freer to progress without sticking to some template, and Helen is a great character – the kind of person who is often over-looked and misjudged. I felt so much pain for Helen as she keeps trying to convince herself that she can be happy with Alastair. If she decides the answer is “No” (which – duh, he’s a jerk, Helen) her life is essentially ruined. She’s trapped by her marriage, and that’s tolerable IF she can convince herself that her husband loves her and that they can recapture the happy days of their courtship. As she loses the ability to pretend, she feels grief, and I was sad for her. But as she discovered her own power and competence, I cheered over and over again. Her emotional journey is huge, and rendered in a completely believable way.
This story is one in which women face two groups of enemies – the fey, and sexist men. Both enemies want to control women’s bodies and minds. The scenes with the fey are creepy, but nothing was creepier than Alistair taking Helen’s iron mask away so that she can’t safely leave the house (the mask keeps the fey from possessing her through her face, and she’s safe in the house because there’s iron on all the windows). And the different motives women have for getting new faces are interesting and often horrifying, like the woman who changed her face not to be fashionable but because it helps her hide from her abuser.
I’ve said not to judge a book by its cover many times, but this is a time when you can. See how this cover is beautiful and mysterious and ethereal and menacing? Well, that’s how the world of the book is. Unbelievably lovely, unbelievably creepy, complicated and elegant and sordid (in spots) at the same time. I did have the benefit of reading Ironskin first to help with the world building, and I recommend it because it’s a good book. But I think you could jump into this one and catch up just fine. Seldom have I seen such elegant world building.
There is a romance in this book, but I considered it to be one of the book’s weaker elements. Rook is mysterious, and the girls of the gothic genre loooove mysterious men. And he’s supportive – a great example of a decent man in a world in which most men are domineering. There was plenty of chemistry, but somehow I couldn’t picture Helen and Rook in a relationship together. I had the same problem with Ironskin with the relationship between Jane and Edward. It may simply be a matter of me being used to have the romance take more of a center stage. I didn’t hate the romance, but I wasn’t very invested in it, either.
One thing I deeply regretted is that Jane never gets to work with Helen as an equal. I want to see Helen grow, but not at the cost of Jane’s growth. Jane developed so much in Ironskin but in this book she’s either absent or passive (for complicated plot reasons) virtually all the time. And that’s a shame, because all Jane’s strengths get forgotten about. I’m not satisfied with having one woman who has discovered her own strength, or even one hundred – I want Helen without sacrificing Jane. It’s implied that Jane will be fine and able to kick ass again, but I feel cheated not to have seen it. I understand that if Helen was going to stop depending on Jane, then Jane needed to be out of commission for a while. And I understand that this is Helen’s story, not Jane’s, and so the ultimate triumph should be hers. But I wanted Jane to come back at full-strength so the sisters could tackle their mutual enemies as a formidable team in which each sister has strengths and weaknesses. I thought that in a story that become less about fighting the fey and more about fighting patriarchy, that was a pretty major omission. It was also an omission because the Jane/Helen relationship is pivotal and the book feels unfinished without seeing them hug it out, or stomp on a fey together, or something.
Other than those caveats, I thought this was an amazing, exciting, imaginative, and empowering story. I can’t wait for the third and final book (although I will have to wait for a while since it’s not out until Fall 2014). The third book jumps eighteen years ahead and is about Dorie, Edward’s daughter. I’m guessing we won’t see much of Jane and Helen, but I hope we get at least one scene of them working together. I need to see the sister relationship have a HEA much more than I need to see one between the sisters and their respective lovers.