the Little Red Reviewer

Heart of Iron, by Ekaterina Sedia

Posted on: December 16, 2011

Heart of Iron by Ekaterina Sedia

Published in 2011

where I got it: library

why I read it: have heard very good things about the author

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In an alternate 1850’s Russia, Alexandra Trubetskaya takes too much after her unorthodox Aunt. Aunt Eugenia may have the ear of the Emperor, but she is a brash spinster, too clever by half, and sees marriage as a waste of a good woman. Torn between tradition and opportunities that are suddenly available to women (such as attending University), Alexandra plans to have it all: an education, possibly a career, and marriage if she meets the right man.

On the train to the University, she meets a young Chinese man, Chiang Tse, who is part of an Asian contingent of students also invited to study at the University. The plan of course, is for the women and foreigners to fail miserably, thus allowing the university to ban their attendance in the future.  Along side the verbal abuse from other students and instructors, the women get top grades. Chiang Tse and his compatriots however, are quickly arrested for petty crimes, with one of them being thrown in prison and the rest deported back to China.

Another man enters Alexandra’s life. Jack is British and mysterious. He knows far too much about everyone, and she wonders if he is a spy. Their relationship is certainly not built on mutual trust, but Alexandra is far smarter than she looks and puts two and two together. She figures out who and what Jack is (and boy did his identity give me a chuckle!), discovers who he’s working for, and the two of them decide to expose the espionage plot. With Jack on the run from the British, and Alexandra outfitted to disguise herself as a man, they travel to China as the most unlikely ambassadors ever.

My favorite parts of this story were when Alexandra is discussing the age old question: is Russia part of  Europe, or Asia? Should they ally with Europe, or with China? Should Alexandra be speaking French and English at University, or Russian and Mandarin?  The question of “what are we?” has plagued Russia for generations, and I wish Sedia had gone more into that.

Heart of Iron had so much potential. I enjoyed the characters, I liked the idea of it, and it was so nice to read anything taking place in a non-English part of the world. But it was trying to be too many things at once. It’s trying to be a light romance, an adventure story, a martial arts story, an urban mythos, and a political thriller alt-history steampunk. And in just over 300 pages, there just wasn’t time for all the pieces to develop or for anything really interesting to happen.  The action and adventure seemed to happen around Alexandra, not to her, or with her. So much for her tomboy-ness. I’ve seen successful books where “everything” is happening, it was saddening that this just wasn’t of them.

Just because Heart of Iron didn’t work for me doesn’t mean it won’t work for you. It’s unfortunate that I’ve a fairly narrow window of what I’m looking for in a novel. If you’re looking for a fun alt-history adventure story, take a look at Heart of Iron. I’ve heard such wonderful things about Sedia that I will be reading more of her books.

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12 Responses to "Heart of Iron, by Ekaterina Sedia"

This sounds interesting, but it might just be because I’m obsessed with Russia…

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that’s one of the reasons I read it. Something about Russian stories, I just can’t get enough of them!

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I’ve run into a few books like this lately, where everything seemed to be there, but it just didn’t work for me. Here’s hoping your next read is a great one! I know mine was. I just finished Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding, and it was great.

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yeah, it was frustrating. :( I’ve been hearing all sorts of wonderful things about Retribution Falls, i better get a copy!

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I have this author on my wish list. I will hopefully get a chance to give her a read one of these days.

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I hope you get the chance to read her! :D

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I bought this for my library, and while I liked one of this author’s other books, I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet (and may not for a while).

As always, nice to read your thoughts.

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Jo, what other Sedia’s have you read? The one I keep hearing about is “A Secret History of Moscow”, or something like that? But I think she’s got like a half dozen novels out there.

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I’m sorry to hear that it didn’t work for you. I bought this with every intention of having it read by now. And by that statement you can of course see that “the road to hell….” and all that. I’ll be interested to see if I agree with you or if it works for me. I’ve only read her story The Alchemy of Stone and I liked it. Touched the right buttons for me. Bit melancholy, but very good.

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Thanks for the opinion, Red! The premise sounded cool but you’re not the first reviewer to comment that the novel was trying to bite off more than it could chew.

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Thank you for stopping by my blog and giving me an opportunity to discovery your nifty site. There’s enough science fiction, fantasy and steampunk here to keep me in the red for the rest of my life :)

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Love that cover!!!!!!!!!!

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