Ekaterina Sedia’s Heart of Iron, an alternate history novel (in this the Russian Decemberists revolt of 1825 was successful), follows Sasha Trubetskaya as she becomes embroiled in the growing conflict between the British, Chinese and Russian empires.
Heart of Iron, with a divergent history which has led to the early completion of the Trans-Siberian railway and the development of airships, is reminiscent of the sub-genre of steampunk. I have noted before that I am a little suspicious of steampunk. That’s not to say that I haven’t enjoyed plenty of work that could be described. I have read the odd thing, though, that takes the aesthetic (fun though that can be) and does little of interest with it. That is to say that giant steam-powered robots and a Babbage inspired computing revolution are all well and good, but it seems to me that steampunk could be used to do so much more. The Victorian era had many technological advances for which we should be thankful.
However, I am far less enamoured of Victorian morality. This might seem irrelevant now, but I live in a country where the current government has members who espouse a return to the values of our forbears. The conservative love of a time when fewer people had rights may be just weak minded rhetorical guff. However, anyone who has been paying the slightest attention to the actions of the current coalition government will be aware that they are doing their damnedest to drag us back there.
What, you may reasonably ask, does this have to do with Ekaterina Sedia’s novel? Well, as I said, it certainly has some of the trappings of steampunk. These are worn lightly, though. She tries something, I think, a little more interesting with her characters. At the opening of the novel, Sasha is looking forward to her début. So far, so traditional for the female offspring of the European elite. Her family, however, while powerful is not in favour. Her aunt has decided that Sasha should become educated.
Sasha starts attending university and becomes determined to prove herself. She is suspicious of the motives of those tasked with her and her peers instruction:
“And thus my education had begun. I quickly got the impression that even if women students were not admitted solely to prove their inferiority, it was viewed as a desirable outcome.
Professor Ipatiev, the lecturer who had delivered the very first lecture in my student career, proved to be a lasting influence. His class was in turns fascinating and upsetting, and Olga, who had swiftly become my closest friend and something of a confidante, shared my feelings.
‘I do not understand,’ she complained one September evening, as the two of us sat in the parlor of my apartment, drinking strong sweet tea thoughtfully prepared by Anastasia before she left to visit with Natalia Sergeevna. ‘Professor Ipatiev seems like a kind man. And yet he looks directly at you and me when he talks about women’s brain’s being smaller than men’s.’
Ipatiev’s pseudo-scientific bigotry extends beyond misogyny into racial stereotyping of non-European races. This feeds into another facet of the novel (and one which draws from the history of the Russian empire). Is the Russian Empire, which straddles Europe and Asia to look east or west? The construction of St. Petersberg would suggest a desire to look to Europe rather than east. In the novel, Ipatiev’s racist insistence that Asian people are mentally inferior is another example of this. His views here become more pointed, given that there are several Chinese attending the university.
Sasha’s initial acceptance, with a shrug, that Ipatiev must be correct as he is the one lecturing demonstrates the dangers of appeals to authority but, as she comes to realise that she (and her Asian colleagues) are as capable as anyone else at the institution, she works hard to prove herself. Her self-confidence grows with her education, but it is events outside her schooling that shape Sasha and drive the plot.
She becomes aware of wider political tensions as the Chinese students, with some of whom she had made friends, fall foul of the secret police. The British and Russian empires are working to form an alliance which, given that the Chinese have recently ceded Hong Kong to the British, makes any Chinese in Russia, the object of suspicion by the authorities. Sasha makes the acquaintance of some of the Britons in Russia at the time. Some of whom are engaged in espionage including one Florence Nightingale. I liked that her alt-history role was to act as a spy. Though her place in history is deservedly assured, it is for a role which is now regarded as a safely feminine one (even now, I think). Her intrusion into a more male dominated area is refreshing.
The other British person to feature heavily in the novel is the mystery cloaked Jack Bartram. His role in the first half of the novel does point to one of the more glaring problems that Sedia’s book has. His arrival as an important character is signalled by his ability to be there in the nick of time. There isn’t much wrong with this, used sparingly. However, his fantastical abilities do tend to kill any tension or interest in the plot in the second half or the novel.
Sasha (dressed as a young soldier) and Bartram set out on a quest to prevent war between Britain, Russia and China. Sadly the interest of the first half is lost, somewhat given that the first time that someone improbably escapes peril, any pretence that the outcome is going to be anything other than a good one is lost (though I can think of at least one novel that riffs on the implausibility of the survival of pulp-fiction characters). Admittedly, Bartram’s love of penny dreadfuls does suggest that the rip-roaring nature of the chase is deliberate. That didn’t stop me from losing interest though. Though my bigger gripe is that it was disappointing following the relative subtlety and interest of the opening sections.
This novel certainly wasn’t perfect, but Sedia has a delicate touch and I did enjoy the first half of the novel a lot. I wouldn’t, therefore, discourage anyone from reading this and I shall certainly be giving some of her other work a look.