Heart of Iron by Ekaterina Sedia
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is the fourth book I've read by Ekaterina Sedia, and it's the most fast-paced. It's steampunk, set in an alternative 1800's Russia, and it borrows from the penny dreadful style one of the characters reads avidly.
The story follows Alexandra (Sasha) Trubetskaya, whose aunt shames the emperor into letting women into the university at St. Petersburg. Sasha meets a great cross-section of Victorian society there, including the English spy Florence Nightingale, Spring-Heeled Jack, and Chiang Tse, a scholar from China. Sasha's friendship with Chiang Tse leads her across Siberia on the newly built Trans-Siberian railroad, chased by British agents and the deathly cold of Russian winter.
The steampunk trappings (airships, submarines, trains before their time, machines that can play music) are mostly background, as well they should be. I'm always annoyed by narratives threads that break just to marvel at how cool the world-building is. Sasha is impressed by the modern age she lives in, but she has greater concerns.
What I really love about the setting is that it changes the focus from where we usually see Victorian or alternate-Victorian literature. This isn't set in Britain, or the western portion of Europe. This book resists British influence, and the characters are struggling against colonialism. If you can't get the notion out of your head that steampunk equals Victorian, this book may give you some cognitive dissonance. As for myself, I loved the alternate take.
I also loved the characters. Sasha has no powers or special strength to protect her, aside from an upbringing that gave her freedom to learn what she wanted. She's treading new ground, literally and figuratively, in a world not built for her. She disguises herself as a young soldier for her journey, but many of the people who help her see through her costume. They help her, anyway, because she shows strength and intelligence that earns their respect.
I liked how the romantic subplot turns out, too. There's some uncertainty, in the end, though it's clear she prefers Chiang Tse. Jack, who's good and deserving of love, doesn't win her just because he's the dashing, brave hero. Sasha wonders what's wrong with her, that she can't love him back, but she never forces it. Though Jack obviously wishes it were otherwise, neither does he. It's a far wiser and more mature outlook on love than I've come to expect in books with a romantic subplot, and I wish more books employed it.
Goodreads tells me I'd have to flip through some short story anthologies to read anything else Sedia has written to date. I may do just that.
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