THE IRON THORN. By Caitlin Kittredge. Ember publishing. 512 pages.
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“The Iron Thorn,” the towering first volume in Caitlin Kittredge’s “The Iron Codex” series, takes place in an alternate timeline, steampunk world, sort of a dystopian 1950s Boston.
Sixteen-year-old Aoife (pronounced “EE-fa”) Grayson has a lunatic for a mother. Labeled a ward of the state, Aoife studies steam-powered machinery at an academy in the iron city of Lovecraft. One day, she receives a mysterious plea for help from her brother, Conrad.
Conrad has been missing ever since he almost killed Aoife in the midst of his own descent into madness one year ago. Worried for her brother and sick of the hypocritical propaganda she’s been fed, Aoife hires a guide named Dean, a wrong-side-of-the-tracks type, and sets out to find her brother and, if she’s lucky, her mysterious father.
Steampunk is a subgenre of sci-fi featuring machinery of the industrial revolution, often set in the Wild West or Victorian era. Kittredge employs a lot of steampunk standards: dirigibles, aether and, yes, goggles, in delightful, if not altogether original, ways. The world-building is phenomenal: 100 pages in and you’re emerged in what feels like a believable, tangible realm, where a shoggoth could hook its amorphous mouth around your fingers in an instant.
A character I couldn’t warm to was Aoife’s friend, Cal. He volunteers to protect her on the journey but mostly just complains. Cal spouts condescending, sexist dialogue, which is very annoying. (“You’re smart for a girl, but this was a rash idea and I’m sorry I let you talk me into it.”)
Kittredge’s first foray into young adult lit is a great read, thanks to the scrappy Dean and the lyrical prose. I did wish Aoife would stand up for herself more, and I would like explanations for some logical inconsistencies. (Why is Aoife, who could very well go insane on her 16th birthday, given a free education at a prestigious academy?) But I was so charmed by this twist-filled story that I hope all of my questions are going to be answered in the second installment “The Nightmare Garden.”
Sarah Goad is a senior at the College of Charleston. She will graduate in May with a degree in English.