Wednesday, 11 February 2015
Heart of Iron by Ekaterina Sedia
So here we are in Heart of Iron, set in a Russia where the Decembrists were successful. Russia is thoroughly Anglophile, although England might not share that particular emotion. (But no Crimean War means Florence Nightingale is somewhat at loose ends. Malevolent ends, one might say.) Constantine is in power, although his brother is in charge of much of the security of the Russian state.
The main character, a young woman named Sacha, is sent off to be part of the first class of women in university in Russia, where she is met with the nastiness and misogyny that you might expect. It's too bad that this is so much what you would expect. While it would be ridiculous to show them being welcomed with open arms, you might want to twist the trope just a tiny bit, do something new with it?
The Chinese students there to study likewise run into a brick wall of intolerance and secret police. Nevertheless, Sacha gets herself involved, believing that they cannot be too mistreated if a white Russian woman stands up for them. That goes badly, and she needs to be saved by an Englishman, who is, of course, Spring-Heeled Jack, there as another university student/spy.
This is where I think the book is weak - coincidence piled on coincidence, and so many tropes just used without a new twist. It's not bad, it's just not exciting. At any rate, Sacha ends up on a trip to China to broker a deal between Russia and China, with absolutely not imperial support or reason for success. She goes with Jack, of course, and disguises herself as a man. Her period is never brought up, and yet this trip goes probably over a month.
In the end, I just don't know. There's not objectionable. The writing isn't bad. But there's nothing that sets my heart on fire, there's not really anything that feels surprising or new, and maybe it's just me, but there's no real sense of danger to Sacha. Or real sense of repercussion if she fails. I'm not necessarily asking for her to be put into personal physical danger, but there needs to be something hanging overhead if she messes up. Yes, maybe the English will invade, but it's all very wishy-washy and doesn't seem at all urgent.
Tension. That's what's not here. There's not enough tension. There is an interesting story, and characters, but there's not enough reason that it matters. The one time there is tension, when her closest Chinese friend is whisked away by the secret police, that's almost immediately undercut by Sacha finding out he left Russia safely. There needs to be a bit more on the line, and then it will matter more. Until then, it's merely fine. Not great. Just fine.