Monday, October 29, 2012

"Ironskin" by Tina Collins-- Good Gothic Fantasy, but Unevenly Paced

Classic Gothic literature like "Jane Eyre" has long lent itself to modern literary retellings.  "Ironskin" by Tina Collins adds a fey spin on the tale with some success, though it can't quite find the right kind of pacing to elevate it to the great story it has the potential to be.

Jane Eliot, scarred from a fey attack, wears an iron mask to hide her face. She works as a governess but her disfigurement makes her employers uncomfortable and she finds herself, again, in need of a job. When she learns that the eccentric artist Edward Rochart is in need of a governess for his strange daughter Dorie, she applies for the job in hopes that their mutual oddness will find them uniquely suited for each other.

However, when she arrives as Rochart's ruined estate and sees Dorie's eerie fey abilities in person, she fears she may not be up to the job. Yet she agrees to try to teach Dorie to be more human and tries to adapt to her new life.

It isn't long before she learns that Mr. Rochart hides more than his daughter at his rambling estate. Wealthy women also visit the reclusive artist and they walk out the door far more beautiful than they walked in. Despite the mystery of Mr. Rochart's art and the knowledge that he could never fall in love with a woman scarred like herself, Jane starts growing attached to him and his daughter Dorie. But the fey have been waging a war on humankind and Jane soon finds out that Mr. Rochart may be right in the middle of the fey's next offensive against mankind.

"Ironskin" is story that mostly succeeds on the merits of its great imagination. It's only very loosely based on "Jane Eyre" borrowing the Gothic flavor of Charlotte Brontë's tale of a young governess and her gruff, eccentric employer and their thorny love story. But Collins introduces a fantasy element in the mysterious fey who, though they have engaged in a war with humanity, have managed to keep their true form secret from the people they fight. Collins contrasts the war against the mannered society that Jane must navigate in her employment and her relationship with her flighty sister Helen and her uncouth, though wealthy, husband Alistair.

Jane is a generally good heroine. She's reserved, as her station in life and disfigurement would ensure, but she's also determined to be self reliant and strong. Her relationships with Edward and Dorie are not unrealistically idealized and that proves to be both good and bad as the payoff you hope for as a reader is as understated as the story itself and doesn't quite have the oomph you want from a love story. The interactions between Edward and Jane are also a bit confusing as, at one point, Jane suspects Edward of some duplicity but it's a plot point that is mostly skipped over in the rush to reunite the characters. There is some info-dumping done to explain the misunderstanding (in the form of an unrealistic fey monologue) but it only highlights how rushed the climax of the story is in contrast to the draggy middle portion.

Much of the story is spent at the rambling Rochart estate and Jane's attempts to draw out a reluctant Dorie are haunting at times, though the narrative gets a bit long winded and mired down in the daily minutiae of educating a young child. Collins attempts to add suspense by changing the setting and having Jane alternate her time between Helen's city house and the rambling Rochart estate, but the device doesn't add anything other than a certain unnecessary busyness. The secondary characters, from the half-dwarven butler to the spoiled socialites that Edward must entertain for business, add a lot to the portion of the story that is set at the Rochart estate. But the setting never feels as fully realized as the characters as Jane never seems to develop the kind of familiarity with the estate one would expect from a character who spends a significant amount of time in one location. It's a normally irrelevant detail, but one that I think could have enhanced the Gothic flavor of the book.

My favorite aspect of "Ironskin" is the overlapping genres. There's a genteel feel to the story and it works when combined with the fantasy elements. Collins brings a lot of imagination to this particular bit of world building and it's what carried me through when the narrative got bogged down in its unfortunately uneven pacing. Mostly I enjoyed "Ironskin" though I might have wished for a tighter, more congruent feel to the overall story structure. The originality is what won me over and will inspire me to pick up the sequel when it finally arrives.

3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars


Charles Gramlich said...

Having never read Jane Eyre, I'm not sure this would be a good work for me.

SQT said...

I think it's more of a girly story. The fantasy elements are pretty good, and I think you'd appreciate that, but the mannered-society part of the story probably wouldn't be your thing.