The Iron King

Julie Kagawa's Iron Fey series cropped up all of a sudden on my radar, with a few different sources noting that this was a great new author/world/series. So I yielded to temptation and started the first book, The Iron King -- and while it's definitely intriguing and a quick read, it wasn't quite as fabulous as the praise had led me to believe. That said, I do think this series could move in *very* interesting directions, so I will totally keep on reading with the hope that Kagawa takes Meghan Chase in fascinating new plotlines that twist throughout Nevernever.

Almost-sixteen-year-old Meghan Chase lives in the middle of nowhere and believes that she is not very interesting in the slightest. Her version of "dressing up" involves clean cargo pants (mostly because that's all her wardrobe could hope to yield), her mother is always busy, and her step-father always seems a little surprised when she's around, as if he's forgotten she's there. Meghan's real father disappeared when she was younger -- didn't leave, didn't die, just disappeared one day after giving his daughter money for the ice cream truck at the park. The one person who seems to really focus on Meghan is her younger half brother named Ethan; in fact he (well, his stuffed rabbit Flopsy, according to Ethan) appears to be the only one who even remembers it's her birthday. What makes it the worst birthday ever, though, is that she suffers total and complete humiliation at the hands of the hottest guy in school after she was about to tutor him in computer science and instead some insults about him suddenly appeared on the screen, making hot jock furious at Meghan. The thing is, she did nothing to create those comments -- they just appeared, mocking him, and weirdly she thought she had seen some kind of... creature in the computer lab. Readers will see the clues of impending paranormal awareness -- particularly when Ethan, previously sweet if a little scared of things like monsters under the bed or in his closet, suddenly turns vicious and attacks her.

So what's the cause of the trouble? Faeries. And not the Tinkerbell kind, thank goodness. Robbie turns up and saves Meghan from her little brother... only to hint that perhaps she'd be better off forgetting things rather than understanding the truth. Stubbornly, she insists on knowing what's really going on. To start, Robbie isn't exactly Robbie... well, he is, but he also goes by the name Robin Goodfellow... which anyone who's ever been to high school should recognize as an alternate name for Puck, servant of Oberon, the faery king in A Midsummer Night's Dream and, apparently, in the alternate Faeryland realm known as Nevernever. Little brother Ethan? It appears as though he's been kidnapped by faeries and swapped out for a changeling. So Meghan resolves to get her little brother back and, with Puck as her semi-reluctant but always mischievous guide, they set forth.

What follows is an interesting introduction to Nevernever, from the untamed Wyldwood where the rogue fey are basically out to kill you to the Seelie/Summer court, headed up by Titania and Oberon... where more cultured and therefore slyer fey are out to kill you, or at least manipulate you. Once they reach the Summer court, let's just say that no one should be all that surprised when Meghan's better-than-the-average-mortal grasp on dealing with the fey has a rather paternal explanation. Meghan spends a good amount of time wrestling with her disbelief after Oberon declares she's his daughter, and therefore a "half-breed" with fey blood in her, but one glance in a faery mirror reveals her true fey nature. For those unfamiliar with all fey stories, the whole Seelie/Unseelie divide might seem arbitrary, but it is grounded in more traditional lore. It should also be unsurprising that beyond Puck (who the reader can tell is in love with Meghan even if she remains oblivious), there's another dark and brooding young man ready to provide a poor example to teenagers about what actual love and relationships should be.

Before I elaborate on that particular thorny issue, let me say that I did, indeed, enjoy The Iron King, though I didn't think it realized its own potential. The writing seemed somewhat rough in places (mostly when dealing with the passage of time and situations where multiple characters were involved in action), but the ideas behind everything were great. Kagawa could be up to some really fun things with this series and I'm eager to see where things go.

That said, we come to my major issue with the book: the romantic lead, Ash. The youngest son of Queen Mab, ruler of the Unseelie/Winter court, the young Winter prince appears in Twilight fashion as yet another male love interest who does nothing but look disinterested and push Meghan away... which, of course, only means that he's totally in to her and really just wants to love her, despite his insistence that he'll kill her if asked to. Seriously? We can't have one teenage relationship that doesn't have some creepy abusive relationship undertones and isn't totally founded on misunderstanding? On the insistence that the girl in question is somehow not enough to handle him or not acceptable? On catching a glimpse of a soft look that is immediately replaced by a steely resolve? On ice-cold, pale skin and the obsessive need to rake back his dark hair with his fingers? Sigh. I guess what irritates me is that I had hoped for better from this storyline, as Meghan will clearly become powerful in her own right and deserves something that feels a bit more equal. Puck is so bouncy and funny that it's hard to see him as a serious love interest, and so as soon as Ash catches Meghan's eye, we know she's doomed. Ash is clearly the enemy in the beginning, but it doesn't take long before Meghan's made a deal with him and so he's then on her side for just long enough that something could happen. There's also no real reason for them to like each other, beyond the fact that Meghan finds him utterly beautiful. They don't have real conversations, so one is forced to believe that their romance springs from angst and the simple fact that it is a bad idea -- relationships between Summer and Winter fey always end badly and this is only exacerbated by the fact that Ash is the son of the Winter Queen and Meghan is the daughter of the Summer king. The whole "forbidden" thing is the reason their "love" seems to exist, which isn't exactly teaching teenage girls about a good relationship's foundation, nor is it particularly investing the reader in cheering on this baseless passion. I'm not even going to go into the fact that suggesting this is "love" is ridiculous. So will Summer and Winter ever come together or is this love doomed from the start? (I think you know the answer to this one.)

Meghan's immediate love for and obsession with Ash isn't my only issue with the novel, but it's the biggest. I really do appreciate that this novel jumps into faerie lore, as I know there are a few novels about the fey out there, but not as many as other paranormal creatures. Kagawa also weaves in modern ideas here (hence the whole Iron King bit), suggesting that new technological imaginings are spawning different kinds of fey which are deadly to Winter and Summer. Ultimately, though, it's the larger ideas that make me appreciate this novel rather than the bits of execution. I like the overall story and themes (the potential that technological dreams are poisoning the magic of the Nevernever and encroaching on the boundaries of the other kingdoms), but I'm not particularly fond of the characters themselves. Meghan herself can be a little shrill -- I'm not convinced of her intelligence or ability to handle herself. (Sure, the point is always that the girl is supposedly normal and then turns out to save the day, but Meghan just seems lucky... and stubborn.) Puck is odd, but he's supposed to be that. The big reveal of his true nature is pretty awkward and he has a tendency to spout things that feel out of sync with the rest of the book. Granted, they're often quite funny, but it makes him come off as leaps and bounds ahead of all these other jokers that populate the novel. Time moves in odd ways during this book, so you can never really be sure how much time has passed -- granted, this is stated as a trait of Nevernever, but it makes for a rather annoying book when you don't really know exactly how much time Ash and Meghan have been denying their secret longing for the other. All I know is it can't possibly be enough time to justify the term "love" in any sense.

This all might be a bit harsh, but I'm only really harsh on the books that I expect great things from. I went in expecting a really good YA novel and I found several excellent elements, but I also found several disappointing flaws. My hope is that Kagawa grows as a writer and storyteller while she's getting through these novels (and that Meghan doesn't totally devolve into annoying teenage girl with her Ash obsession and this annoying Summer/Winter fey doomed relationship), and as Kagawa ratchets up the complexity, we get better interactions between the characters. I'll definitely keep reading with the secret hope that this series gets better and reaches my initial hopes, but I'll also try to scale back my expectations.

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