Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Heart of Iron by Ekaterina Sedia

I don't know what it is about Sedia's books. I like them enough to keep reading them when they cross my plate, but not enough to seek them out. She's never irritated me enough to want to say that I'm done, but there just always seem to be a little bit missing. It's like they're *this* close to being great, but end up settling in merely satisfactory. (With the exception of at least one of the stories in Moscow But Dreaming, which was finally, finally, a perfect little gem.)

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.


  1. I have a feeling a great deal of this may stem from that obsessive--yet frighteningly well-connected--sociopath, Kathleen Hale. She got enough media attention for her side to ensure that book bloggers everywhere need to be nervous about their reviews. (I mean, an article in "The Guardian", for crying out loud.) It's just a shame that a supposedly neutral forum like Goodreads has bought into the PC hype. Good for you for taking a stand. I only pray that this is not indicative of the future--will all opinions be subject to censure if they might hurt someone's feelings? That certainly seems to be the direction society is heading. This is just another prime example of the Millennial generation's sense of entitlement. Kathleen Hale felt that she didn't deserve a bad review--which is understandable. No one wants to see their work criticized. What is inexcusable is Hale's blithe mitigation of her illegal and disturbing behavior. Someone hurt her feelings, so that makes it permissible to seek revenge on them. It sounds like the plot of a bad cartoon; unfortunately it is all too real and a prime example of the pussification of America.

    1. It took me a second to figure out that you were referring to this post, Shannon!

      But thank you. I couldn't do otherwise, although I haven't run into that kind of censure myself. I'm not necessarily convinced this is a new problem, though. As a historian, I'm tempted to go do a study of reactions to criticism in the past.

      What I think is new is the availability of self-publishing, and the commensurate number of self-published authors who've never had to run the gauntlet of people telling them their work isn't good enough, and not being prepared for that when it happens. Most artists of whatever stripe have to learn the painful fact that once they release their babies out into the world, the world is not obligated to be kind to them. That's tough, and it hurts, but it's also the flip side of getting to express yourself in public - people are going to be critical of what you've done. Even if it's the best thing ever.