Book Review: The Iron Knight

The Iron Knightby Julie KagawaHarlequin Teen, 2011It's a safe bet that most of the fans of Julie Kagawa's exuberant "Iron Fey" series are teenage girls. After all, the protagonist, Meghan Chase, is a teenage girl herself - one who early on in the series discovers that she's actually half-faery, the daughter of the Summer King, heir to the throne of a realm that exists uneasily alongside our own. In The Iron King, The Iron Daughter and finally The Iron Queen, Meghan finds, fights, and then accepts her destiny to become the Iron Queen and rule the land of the iron fey. Pretty much any teenage girl is going to consider all that infinitely preferable to Chemistry 101 and an 11 pm curfew. Kagawa's writing voice is perfectly pitched to all the spirited, too-smart-for-their-own-good girls just like Meghan (just like Kagawa too, once upon a time, I'm betting) who do battle every day against the banality of the everyday world. Little wonder the whole series is so addictive.According to its author, that series was intended to be a trilogy dramatizing Meghan's rise to power and renunciation of true love in the face of duty. That plan was complicated by the same factor that complicates so many teen-girl-centric plans: a hot, brooding boy.In this case, a boy named Ash.He's a fey himself, son of the Winter Queen and raised in the Winter court where cool-handed martial prowess is venerated and hot-blooded emotions are frowned upon. So his personal world is thrown into turmoil when he falls in love with Meghan - a love so strong and instinctive that it not only consumes but bewilders him:

Humans, I discovered, loved so passionately, without reservation, and the stronger the emotion the brighter their glamour became. The glamour aura of a mortal in love outshone anything I'd ever seen before, so pure and intense it was almost addictive. I could see why the Summer Court pursued these emotions with such passion; there was nothing like them in any of the courts.

At the close of the original trilogy, Ash swears an oath of fealty to the new queen Meghan, even though his supernatural physiology is incapable of living in her iron-saturated world. Against the dictates of her own heart and his, she banishes him for his own good. But banishment never works with hot, brooding boys (just ask Romeo, the grand-daddy of them all), and Ash vows to find a way to be with the girl he loves. This involves a long quest to acquire a soul - a quest filled with lots of adventure and snappy dialogue (Ash is accompanied by his smart-aleck quasi-rival for Meghan's affection, a character named Puck who steals quite a few scenes), as well as surrealistic visions, which Kagawa almost always evokes quite well:

Faeries roamed across the darkened landscape, swarms of them, but they were not my Unseelie brethren. They were of the poisoned realm, the Iron fey; gremlins and bugs, wiremen and Iron knights, the faeries of mankind's technology. I gazed around at my homeland and shuddered.

This fourth book, as these excerpts make clear, is narrated by Ash himself - and that's a bit of a problem, because like all hot, brooding boys everywhere, he's enormously tedious and mopey. Kagawa is such a sympathetic writer, so eager to get inside the skin of her characters, that she creates Ash's voice far too well: we end up spending spending 200 pages watching Zac Efron do only the 'serious' scenes from High School Musical, over and over again. Even Puck's non-stop wise-cracking can't completely rebalance things.Ash's path to winning the soul that will allow him to live with Meghan in the land of the iron fey is fraught with danger. There are plenty of action sequences (Kagawa is almost comically bad at these - at one point during a fight with a manticore, Ash tells us five times in eleven lines that he can feel the beast's venom coursing through him) and hairpin plot-twists, and through it all, Kagawa does a wonderful job of simultaneously entertaining old fans and welcoming new ones. Almost miraculously, it isn't necessary to read the original trilogy to understand and like this extra volume.The book's master-stroke is beautifully done: there's a long extended sequence in which Ash seems to live out his life as a mortal, soulful husband to Meghan - we get years packed into the span of only a few pages, and they're the best pages Kagawa has yet written. And even when that bittersweet trial is over, the Guardian at the End of the World has one last, unexpected point to raise to Ash:

"You have passed the gauntlet, knight of the Iron Court. You have seen what it takes to become human - weakness of the flesh, conscience and mortality. Without these things, a soul would wither and die inside you. You have come far, farther than anyone before you. But there is still one final question. One last thing you must ask yourself, before you are ready for a soul."Do you truly want one?"

Fantasy fans - and of course teen girls everywhere - will know the answer to that question even before our hot, brooding hero does.