Elsa lives in a world made by her mother through the scientific branch of scriptology where a person can write new worlds.
But, when her home is attacked and her mother abducted, Elsa must travel to the real world–historical 19th-century Italy–where she finds a secret society of young people with gifts like her own in scriptology, as well as mechanics and alchemy. On the way, she meets Leo, a gorgeous mechanist with a smart mouth and a tragic past, as well as many other friends who help her find her kidnapped mother and fend of assassins.
I really wanted to enjoy this. Really, really.
I had so many hopes–this was going to magical and dangerous and a total romp through the woods with twists and turns and betrayal and swoon-worthy romance. I wanted to be in Clare’s spell–following along enthusiastically.
I forgot that this was a fantasy. (Technically, steampunk, which is basically fantasy in this case.) Fantasy can have books that are huge successes for me, mediocre stories, or total disasters. This fell into that unhelpful middle category of having so much potential, but unfortunately lacking in execution, making it average and bland.
I so wanted to enjoy this, and on some aspects I managed to–the magic system, although somewhat basic and sometimes-but-not-always convenient, was interesting and novel to me, and I loved reading about the scriptology and alchemy and mechanics and this was all so interesting–there was vast potential in this storyline.
Although I feel like this wasn’t fully explored in this book, I do have high hopes for this plotline in the next novel as I think it made good progress and has more yet to come.
This was really the highlight of the novel–I just loved the steampunk aspect, and the historical-Italy setting didn’t hurt either.
But what ended up averaging with the five (and also marring other parts of the story) was just the characters.
They were all so flat. I never really got a chance to grasp who they were and to understand their hopes and dreams and desires on a deeper scale rather than “Leo has daddy issues” and “Elsa misses her mother” and it was all very two-dimensional. It felt like I’d met all of the characters before in other books, seeing the same type of backstory or the same entitlement or the same sort of dynamic. And it’s not necessarily unoriginality, but it’s just so bland and regular and common. Just like clichés aren’t all bad, common characters aren’t all bad either.
But they are in such a grand scale that no character felt unique to me. Where they did have developed backstories or layered issues, it was still something that didn’t give the reader that greater sense of understanding and made me feel like I was knowing what they wanted me to see, not what I wanted to see.
And I know that this is someone’s baby–Clare is bound to love the characters like they were her own because she crafted them. How can I go and insult something that someone else loves?
Yet, I have to be honest and say that I unfortunately just didn’t like this batch of characters. Besides feeling done-before and two-dimensional, there were just things about them that bothered me.
Elsa was nearly flawless all around–she does almost everything right and is successful when she tries and is hardworking and the paragon of a good, hardworking daughter. But wait–she’s totally flawed emotionally because “love is a weakness.” (See quote for uncorrected proof:)
“Jumi had taught her that love was a weakness–that if you let someone in, you gave them the power to hurt you.”
This trope doesn’t always bother me, but I felt like it wasn’t hashed out enough. The only thing this really affected was Elsa’s love issues and this was one of the more miniscule parts of the novel.
Leo, the other main protagonist, also suffers from unhashed-backstory-syndrome and he’s got problems after both his parents and his brother died in an attack. I can’t spoil too much of this plotline, but I just wasn’t really a fan of how this worked out and it felt cliché.
There’s a few other things that I wanted to point out that were effects of the characters.
Firstly, the romance was just something I wasn’t into. I didn’t feel like there was chemistry and Leo and Elsa felt more platonic than anything to me. When they did have a little spark, it felt pretty forced to me and I would have been a lot more satisfied if they just stayed friends.
I liked how Clare added diversity in Elsa being brown, but I felt like it was almost tiptoed around. Actually tackling the idea of race in this circumstance would have really changed the narrative to make it more profound, but by tiptoeing around this idea that “Oh, Elsa’s brown, but we don’t know too much about it” made it seem kind of there to be there rather than there to be used and addressed. I understand if Clare is uncomfortable with writing about this (better to stay in your own lane than to go and offend a couple dozen people), but I wanted more from this and felt that there was a lot of potential in this storyline that was lacking because Elsa was so cookie-cutter.
Also, the plot was largely fine by me. They did some traipsing around and talking and trying to find something to do, which didn’t bother me too much. Things sped up later in the story during the climax where they were doing all sorts of crazy things in labyrinths.
But what bothered me about the plot was a decision Leo makes which the reader discovers at the very, very end, and it led me to developing an intense dislike for his character. He take the choice away from others without them knowing, and this was a terrible move for him to do without counsel. I felt like he was “playing God” and doing things that shouldn’t be done, and I really hope this is addressed as something that shouldn’t be done during book 2.
Overall, I didn’t really enjoy this book very much and it ended up being a large fault of the characters. And this isn’t a terrible book–for me, it ended up being unfortunately average and bland for the most part–but if the characters do sound like people you’d like (not everyone shares my opinions of them being bland), then I say go for it. This just ended up being not the book for me. (Though I give it a giant kudos for including the serial comma!)
Thank you to Macmillan/Imprint and Netgalley for providing me with a digital review copy in exchange for an honest review!
Have you heard of Ink, Iron, and Glass? What do you think of the summary?