This year two novels with strong romantic elements were nominated for Nebula Awards. One, Glamour in Glass, is a fantasy tribute to Jane Austen, and the other, Ironskin, is a fantasy version of Jane Eyre. (Note: Glamour in Glass review coming Thursday.)
Glamour in Glass uses fantasy elements in a subtle, restrained manner, as befits a Jane Austen tribute, while Ironskin is gothic right down to the blighted gray moor and the heroine's hand-me-down clothes.
Here's the plot synopsis of Ironskin courtesy of Tina Connolly's website:
Jane Eliot wears an iron mask. It's the only way to contain the fey curse that scars her cheek. The Great War is five years gone, but its scattered victims remain – the ironskin. When a carefully worded listing appears for a governess to assist with a “delicate situation” – a child born during the Great War – Jane is certain the child is fey -cursed, and that she can help.
Teaching the unruly Dorie to suppress her curse is hard enough; she certainly didn't expect to fall for the girl's father, the enigmatic artist Edward Rochart. But her blossoming crush is stifled by her own scars, and by his parade of women. Ugly women, who enter his closed studio…and come out as beautiful as the fey.
Jane knows Rochart cannot love her, just as she knows that she must wear iron for the rest of her life. But what if neither of these things is true? Step by step Jane unlocks the secrets of her new life – and discovers just how far she will go to become whole again.
One of the interesting aspects of Ironskin is that a lot of the back-story is subtly woven in, and a lot of it remains a mystery. We never learn much about the Great War except that it was devastating, and that although humans seem to have won, the victory is precarious at best. This air of mystery does a couple of things – it keeps the story from being all exposition, it increases the overall sense of menace and mystery that is so important to the gothic genre, and it actually makes it easier to accept things that if too explicitly spelled out would be ridiculous. The mechanics of this world are deliberately kept vague, but the metaphors are incredibly compelling as Jane learns how much of her rage is hers and how much is externally imposed, and how to use it, and how much of her face to reveal to the rest of the world. Even though the world building was so vague, it also felt real, because so many small details anchor the story. Even in this very short quote, you can see how concrete, physical details anchor the writing:
“The iron mask on her face was cold in the chill air. She wrapped her veil more tightly around her face, tucked the ends into the worn wool coat. Helen's best, but her sister would have better soon enough.”
The variations on the Jane Eyre names (such as calling Edward 'Edward Rochart' instead of 'Rochester') aren't coy. I felt like they served the story in two ways. One is that they set a distance between the original Jane Eyre and this book, which is meant to be thematically similar but not a completely parallel story. Additionally, Jane is tormented by her dreams of other possibilities. She constantly imagines an alternate Jane, whose family is intact and whose face is unscarred, and she can't accept her new life because of this. As a reader, we can add our own vision of an alternate Jane, one who lives in an England unpopulated by Fairie.
I took a look at some of the reader reviews of this book on Goodreads, and people are divided about it. I think this is because the romance element of the book is pretty weak. This book is solidly about Jane, not Edward, and we never really get to know Edward. My feelings about the romance in the original Jane Eyre are complicated, but by the end of the book I can picture Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester's lives together. I didn't feel that way by the end of Ironskin. There were plenty of reasons for Jane to be attracted to Edward. Who can fail to be at least a little entranced by a good-looking rich man who is also mysterious, kind, funny, and clearly in need of being saved by a good woman? But at the end of the day a relationship needs to have some actual basis – you can't resolve an argument about whose turn it is to take out the trash by looking broodily at each other (although surely that is comedy sketch gold – someone make this happen!)
I thought Ironskin might be a light and easy read, but it is intensely emotional. It's really only tangentially about romance. Its main theme is really that of grief, of surviving trauma, and of the costs of war. Everyone is reeling from the war in a different way and everyone is wearing some kind of disguise. Everyone is obsessed with keeping up appearances on some level or another, possibly because they are all afraid that if they don't they will crumple up and die of severe PTSD. This aspect of the book was fascinating and challenging and ultimately ferociously empowering (Jane is a freaking badass when it come to owning herself) but it wasn't puppies and kittens, that's for sure.
My favorite thing about this book by far is that it gets the character of Jane right. Jane Eliot isn't Jane Eyre. If the two characters were to meet on some blasted heath, it would be immediately obvious that they are different people who have been shaped by different experiences and environments. However, it would also be obvious that the two Janes share vital, core elements – a stubborn will to survive, a sense of frustration at living a tightly constrained life with limited choices, a powerful sense of self-worth despite social isolation and censure, a passionate nature and a strong moral compass. Jane Eliot gives me that same rush, that same feeling that I can be “poor, obscure, plain, and little” and still matter, that Jane Eyre does.
For fantasy readers, Jane fans, and gothic fans, this will be a book to treasure, but people looking for a straightforward romance novel will be disappointed by the lack of relationship building.