The Iron Witch by Karen Mahoney has one of the best covers I’ve seen in ages. It’s absolutely gorgeous and intricate and intriguing, and the book itself (or my edition at least) even has gold-edged pages. It is a gold and shiny book, which is entirely my kinda thing. It includes alchemists and fairies and a girl with iron inlaid in her arms and hands. If you like pretty books with strong fairytale elements then this book is definitely for you!
That’s what they call seventeen-year-old Donna Underwood at Ironbridge High School. A horrific fey attack that killed her father when she was just a child left Donna branded with iron tattoos that cover her hands and arms – and magically enhanced strength, that she now does all she can to hide.
Now, after ten years of wishing for a normal life, Donna finally accepts her role in the centuries-old war against the darkest outcasts of Faerie – the dark elves. Aided by Xan, a gorgeous half-fey dropout, Donna must save her best friend’s life – and that means betraying one of the world’s greatest secrets and confronting the very thing that destroyed her family.
– from Amazon
I wanted more. That there’s more to come is great, but there’s a feeling of characters and settings and plotlines and all sorts of things being muted or covered up so although there’s a sense of intrigue (always valued) there’s also a sense of distance that made it hard to get into for most of the first half. Donna isn’t my kind of character but there’s a sad charm about her, and in the last third of the book she came alive; the change of pace and tone propelled the book from being a decent YA with romantic and otherworldly themes to something a lot more entertaining and engaging. I wanted more of the alchemy, because the little we see of it in the laboratory really livened up the plot and gave depth to the setting. More alchemy! I love me some alchemy. Especially when really inventive things are done with it – like Donna’s arms, which Mahoney details the thinking behind in a wonderful essay at the back of the book. That scene in the lab is also where Donna shines, taking charge and showing us that she knows things and can use what she knows, and isn’t the slightly whiny teen she sometimes seems without overdoing the exposition. I couldn’t get enough of that scene. Really fun!
The plot’s very straightforward and uncomplicated (girl loses dad, girl’s best friend goes AWOL, girl teams up with charming mysterious chap to get him back), as are the characters for the most part. I was fascinated by the older characters who we see so little of, and although I found Navid a bit bland (Donna’s focus on getting him back didn’t quite click for me though I was happy to go along for the ride) the romance was delicate and extremely well-spun. I’m horribly demanding about romance storylines in my reading and this was more than satisfactory; realistic enough while still maintaining that little glimmer of magic and shyness, that tinge of trust. However, the bully stands out as a jarring moment because she just didn’t fit in – for all the lack of a concrete bad guy (well, you have the skriker, but that’s hardly the villain of the piece, and the queen was too sympathetic) there’s something of the mindless caricature about her, and though I had my issues with it the book is too well-written in general for that sort of thing to pass without comment. To be specific it was jarring because it felt flat in a book written in a great style with excellent descriptions and characters with layers of complications and history, so it just felt odd.
In fact, if I’d only read the last half or third of the book I’d have been hugely enamoured with the whole thing, but the slow beginning and weird distance from Donna and her world dragged it down a bit. There is something really interesting about Donna but it gets a bit lost in the third person segments, and I reckon she’s a prime example of when first person perspective works better than third (which might have helped regarding the exposition, actually). I found it really interesting that the book lacked an actual antagonist, which made it feel a bit aimless and dependent on a MacGuffin, but at the same time it meant more emphasis on Donna.
The ending was a bit abrupt but nicely handled (consequences happen!) and overall I liked the book. It’s a bit of a scene-setting series-starting book, a shame as it feels oddly incomplete, but I’ll continue reading the trilogy. I do think it’s a great young YA (I’ll be passing it on to my dad’s god-daughter in due course, definitely!). Most importantly, The Iron Witch has imagination – always the most vital thing in any book. It’s an undemanding but enjoyable book, and if you like fairytales, alchemy or promising strands of teen romance, then this is certainly worth picking up.