Ironskin, by Tina Connolly, is almost exactly what is promised on the cover. No silly, not the illustration; the cover blurb on the edition that I picked up says, “A steampunk Beauty and the Beast tale, beautifully and cleverly reversed.” And while I would say that “steampunk” is not the appropriate description for the setting, the book certainly delivers on all of the rest of that, and then some.
Ironskin offers up a reimagining of Beauty and the Beast, along with a decent helping of Jane Eyre, and does it with a setting that feels both familiar and just foreign enough for you to not be entirely sure what to expect next. The world is slowly industrializing in the aftermath of a vast war against the fey, those who had previously provided the power which is now being sought in coal. Quick note to reviewers: growing industrialization is not the same thing as steampunk, not even when there are mystical sources of power which used to be commonplace and still occasionally pop up.
I must confess, I didn’t really like Jane Eyre when I read it years ago. I simply couldn’t get excited about any of it, and while I dutifully read it for my English class at the time, I never really enjoyed it. There were a few parts of it which struck me as potentially interesting, but they all came long after I had given up on the book. But Ironskin delivers its homage in a style that I find quite amenable, jumping right to the Thornfield Hall section and delivering the story in modern prose, even when it does focus on the same inner turmoil I had once found so disorienting. Those who remember the characters of Jane Eyre will not be surprised by the names of the various characters in Ironskin; Mr Rochester becomes Mr Rochart, Jane Eyre becomes Jane Eliot, and a variation on Blanche Ingram is delivered as Blanche Ingel. If Jane Eyre had read a bit more like Ironskin, I would have liked that book too. Well done to Tina Connolly for helping me to appreciate a book that I’ve neglected and disliked for years.
Beauty and the Beast, though, is a story that I loved right off the bat. I was first introduced through Disney (as were most people my age), and Tina Connolly is clearly happy to dwell in the details of the story. I really enjoy the way that she uses the tension between Rochart and Eliot to leave you not entirely sure which one is the Beast and which the Beauty. Both Rochart and Eliot are obviously marked in one fashion or another, reclusive, and bear all the standard marks of being cursed. The inversion, and the way in which it’s resolved, were quite excellent.
Spoiler of sorts: even by the end of the book you could still argue it both ways.
Connolly could have written a far more straight-forward send up of the classic story, but by combining it with Jane Eyre and with a new and interesting background for Eliot, she offers up a delightful twist on the expected themes. If any of that sounds interesting, I’d recommend it. It’s a fun and fairly quick read, and it’s really quite good.