Title: The Iron Ship
Author: K.M. McKinley
Series: The Gates of the World
The order of the world is in turmoil. An age of industry is beginning, an age of machines fuelled by magic. Sprawling cities rise, strange devices stalk the land. New money brings new power. The balance between the Hundred Kingdoms is upset. For the first time in generations the threat of war looms.
In these turbulent days, fortunes can be won. Magic runs strong in the Kressind family. Six siblings strive – one to triumph in a world of men, one to survive murderous intrigue, one to master forbidden sorcery, one to wash away his sins, one to contain the terrible energies of his soul.
And one will do the impossible, by marrying the might of magic and iron in the heart of a great ship, to cross an ocean that cannot be crossed.
The Iron Ship captured me pretty quickly because of its fascinating world-building. Instead of the generic medieval-ish setting, so many fantasy novels go for. The setting reminds more of the industrialization. Just with added necromancy.
Talking of this: Magic takes an active role in the book. It’s not just a vague presence like in some high fantasy novels. Wizards exist in this world and they aren’t even that rare. Now I’m not saying that magic in fantasy always needs to manifest in the form of spell-casting. I’m just saying that I enjoy it if it does happen to manifest in the form of wizards who can raise people from the dead and ask them questions.
There are also amazing characters: the novel mainly revolves around five siblings who have all chosen different careers. A soldier, a playwright, an engineer, a businesswoman and a guider (a wizard who can guide the spirits of the dead into the afterlife…and also do necromancy). The playwright has OCD and depression. This is clearly stated in the text and even influences the plot, something I never saw in a fantasy novel.
Their sibling-relationships are also really well portrayed: they agree, they disagree but they do care about each other.
However, pretty soon there were a few buts that clouded my enjoyment. The world-building was great but it was again a world where women don’t count much. I am getting tired of worlds that have two moons, talking dogs and magic that can reanimate the dead but women being considered as important as men is apparently outside the realm of the possible.
Similarly: the main characters? Two women and almost a dozen men. It’s sad because those two women? They are amazing. (Towards the end a third one appears who will probably become important in the following books but that still doesn’t balance it out).
Then there’s the matter of the plot. For a long time, not that much happens. People move from one place to another. A big ship is built. A fraud is uncovered. A woman invites a man to visit her observatory (both, not a euphemism and very much a euphemism). Vague references to necromancy, magic in general and dead gods are made. I don’t think fantasy always needs to have huge things happening but all this is…well. Very little. And there weren’t even many hints about larger things to come. I kept reading and wondering what would happen eventually but couldn’t do more than make vague guesses. Something must happen with the ship. After arriving at point B something must happen to the character who went there.
And it stays like this for over 3/4 of the book. And then suddenly a lot of things happened. Most of them bad and most of them ended with lots of people dead.
But even then I still didn’t have a much clearer idea of where the plot will be going in the following books. Yes, some things are hinted at but overall it feels more like I read a prologue and the first few chapters of a book instead of all of it.
But despite this, I still enjoyed the book and plan to read the next one (hoping that the pacing will be better). I am unhappy with the treatment of the female characters but most other things are refreshingly different from many generic fantasy-novels. The author’s prose just flows and she manages to convey enough about the world without ever resorting to infodumps.
ARC received from NetGalley