Monday, May 12, 2014

THE IRON KING


Review of THE IRON KING by JULIE KAGAWA
(first in THE IRON FEY series)

I’ve heard great things about both this series and particularly this author so I started this novel with high expectations. Though enjoyable, it didn’t live up to the anticipation. Ultimately, I found THE IRON KING an imperfect book that I nonetheless liked despite a lengthy list of criticisms. Kagawa has the promise of a writer who could and will do better, but I didn’t find this particular book gush-worthy. Going with the tapestry metaphor, if you stand back and admire the story from a distance it will reward your attention with a satisfying tale, but if you start tugging at any of the numerous loose threads the entire plot unravels.

Starting with the good, the book gripped me in the first chapter with an emotional catalyst and some dramatic irony. Megan’s little brother Ethan keeps complaining about the scary man in his closet. Of course, he’s four years old so no one gives his stories any credit. In the very first chapter, Megan comes home to the news that her beloved German shepherd Beau has been put down for attacking Ethan, who tearfully insists that the dog hadn’t meant to bite his arm, had only been trying to drag him away from the scary man in the closet. Though both Megan and her parents still assume Ethan’s making up stories, the reader knows they better start listening closer to the four year old.

On that note, I loved Megan’s relationship with her brother. “The scary man in the closet” does kidnap Ethan soon after the dog’s out of the way and Megan charges into the dangerous and foreign fey world with the goal of finding him and bringing him home. So many novels, especially young adult, center on rescuing or making sacrifices for a love interest that I found the strong sibling bond propelling Megan onwards refreshing.

Now moving on to some of my criticisms. I did find the plot quite predictable. If you’ve read another novel about a teenage girl who doesn’t yet know she’s actually a fairy princess, well, you’ve read more or less read this one. As one example of hard-handed hint dropping, Megan’s mischievous and protective best friend Robbie (obviously a fairy, though she doesn’t know it yet) playfully calls her “princess” despite her protests to the girly endearment. I am pleased to add, though, that the book turns more innovative near the end. For perhaps the first three quarters or even a little more, the setting, characters, and world-building all pull from familiar fairy tropes, but in the last fourth of the book everything starts feeling more like something I haven't read before as Megan uncovers a threat to the entire fey world.

I’m of the opinion that in the best books you forget an author even exists; you become so immersed in the world and the characters. Unfortunately, many of the small plot holes that can rip this story apart if you pick at them boil down to unconvincing motivation. If asked why a character acts a certain way, my answer would often be “because the author said so.” If an author needs to move a story from point A to point B, we still want the characters’ decisions to feel organic. For example, Megan hopped on board the revelations that fairies exist, an entire fairy world exists, she’s really daughter to the fairy king, and fairies have stolen her brother into their world far too easily. I love fantastical stories where the people’s floored reactions to magic makes me imagine what it would actually be like one day learning something exists that defies my understanding.

The romance didn’t hook me. As with other elements of the plot, it felt contrived. These characters love each other because the author says so, not because they’re really a good fit or have actually developed any true affection. It’s a familiar romance trope that always annoys me: “They barely know each other and the guy’s a jerk but we’re going to call it world-shattering true love.” 

Last on my list of complaints, Megan is not a resourceful heroine at all. The positive interpretation of this is that she might be a more realistic portrayal of your average teenage girl, but even if a character can’t escape every danger on her own I like to see her try. When in trouble, Megan literally waits for someone to come along and fix things for her. Another positive interpretation is that I hope we might see significant character-growth over the course of the series.

In short, THE IRON KING is a good fluff read but I wouldn’t expect more than that from the book. There’s a predictable and unoriginal plot with rather dull characters but I nevertheless enjoyed the story and intend to read on. Though hard to explain why, the book also struck me as a kind of writerly stretching; I’m convinced Kagawa can do better. I have high hopes that the second one might have more depth, though if not I probably won’t read farther than that.

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