It's been five years since The Great War between the humans and the fey ended, and the humans are trying to rebuild their society to manage without the magically enhanced technology they previously got in trade with the fey. Jane Elliot lost her brother during the war, and has permanent scarring on her face. Those injured with fey sparks have to wear to control the fey influence overwhelming them and spreading to those around them. In Jane's case, she has to wear an iron mask, or her rage will affect those around her in terrifying ways.
Jane works as a governess to support herself and her younger sister, but never gets to stay long in a position before she is let go with thinly veiled excuses. When she sees a listing for a governess to help with a child born during The Great War, she is certain it's a child who's also fey-cursed, and she's eager to help. The position proves harder than Jane could've imagined. Nearly alone at the large, partially ruined manor with a willful child who refuses to use her hands, and is able to move things with her mind, Jane is close to despair. She is one in a long line of governesses who've been driven to despair by the girl, Dorie, and the girl's widowed father, Mr. Edward Rochart, is an elusive and mostly absentee artist, clearly fond of his daughter, but mostly preoccupied with his work.
Jane is drawn to her employer, even when she knows it's a terrible idea. She's also curious as to the mysterious nature of Mr. Rochart's work. Plain or downright ugly women come to the manor and enter his studio, and leave beautiful as the fey. How is it that the lights in the manor are still run on fey technology? What is the real truth behind Dorie's strange powers and why is her birth shrouded in secrecy? Why does Mr. Rochart visit the woods around the manor, where the fey are known to live? How does he transform the women who come to his studio?
I first read about Ironskin several months ago on The Book Smugglers' blog. A steampunk retelling of Jane Eyre, one of my favourite historical novels? I couldn't wait to get my hands on the book, and my joy was hard to contain when I was granted an ARC through NetGalley. The book is indeed a re-imagining of Jane Eyre, but it's more fey-punk than steampunk and there are elements of other stories in it too. Aspects of Beauty and the Beast and Tam Lin are absolutely present, and anyone expecting a beat for beat fantasy version of the Brontë-novel is going to be disappointed.
This Jane is not an orphan, and actually has valid reasons for being upset about her appearance. If Jane Eyre had had to wear a face mask to cover hideous facial scarring, I would've had more sympathy for her whining about being so plain all the time. Mr. Edward Rochart doesn't have a mad wife in the attic, and the little girl needing a governess is actually his daughter. Unfortunately, while the world building is excellent and the events of the Great War and aftermath are portioned out without any heavy info dumping, the romance side of the book is less well done than I would've liked.
Jane is a great character. As the story is told from her perspective, we get to know her intimately. We know her fears, hopes and dreams and feel deeply for her when she's struggling to get Dorie to behave more like a normal child than one fey-touched. We understand her loneliness, and how distant she feels from the life of balls and high society that her younger sister is part of after an advantageous marriage. Mr. Rochart is clearly an attractive and intriguing man, but unlike Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester, they barely spend any time in each other's company. Barring a few scenes together, where it's made clear that Mr. Rochart's past is somehow intertwined with the fey, and that he loves his daughter very much, they barely see each other, and it makes me wonder what she's building her infatuation and later passionate affection on. I'm not a fan of "tell, don't show". The author has to give me reason to believe a romance is actually viable, something Tina Connolly sadly doesn't. Jane just falls in love with her employer because Jane Eyre does. That's not good enough.
Despite this, I really very much enjoyed the novel, and thought it was a very clever re-working of a book I'm very fond of and have studied in depth while doing my degree. As well as being an entertaining reading experience with many clever twists in its own right, Ironskin made me consider new aspects of Jane Eyre and different interpretations of the influences that may have inspired Charlotte Brontë. Best of all, Ironskin is the first book in a series, and I enjoyed the book enough that I will absolutely check out any sequels as well.