Of goggles, dirigibles, mutants and eldritch – a Lovecraftian adventure to thrill and chill

Hmm, I needed something a little creepy, a little horrible, a little dark. And its like I tripped into this open manhole and when I came out I got more than what I expected!

Title: The Iron Thorn

Author: Caitlin Kittredge

Genre: Steampunk/Lovecraftian Fantasy

Pages: 492

Days to read it: One and a half

Synopsis and Impressions:

Do you like:

a)      Monsters/zombies/viral mutants, or anything with clammy rotted skin, gnashing teeth and breath of death?

b)      Pseudo 1950s? Clockwork thingumbobs? Girl engineers?

c)       Weird, otherworldly phenomena that cannot be explained by science? A.k.a. magic?

d)      Awesome old houses with secret passageways and surprises in every room?

And these are only some of the superficial attractions of this story.

Reading The Iron Thorn by Caitlin Kittredge is like falling into the rabbit hole. And continuing to read The Iron Thorn is like falling into a rabbit hole within the rabbit hole within the rabbit hole. If you dare to leave what you think you know behind, open your eyes to the possibilities and step into a different interpretation of your world, there are so many layers of truth and adventure awaiting you! Aoife Grayson is not afraid to step out of bounds. In fact, if the world wasn’t what she thought it was she might have a chance to live beyond her sixteenth birthday, sane. What if her Mother and her brother’s madness were not symptomatic of the necrovirus, the virus that turns loved ones into slavering walking corpses? What if everything the Proctors told the citizens of Lovecraft was one big lie? Aoife Grayson is determined to find out the truth, and when she receives a mysterious message from her brother-who-was-supposed-to-be-in-the-madhouse, she sees no other option but to sneak off on a dangerous journey across the nightscape and return to her ancestral home, where the madness all began: Arkham House.

Arkham House is alive. Aoife feels its heartbeat pulse along with her own. Jack-of-all-trades Dean and best friend too-curious-for-his-own-good Cal think Arkham house is just an old, musty building, with some interesting gizmos. A curio house, perfectly explained by meticulous engineering and science, nothing more. More than anything, Aoife knows she can count on sound logic backed up by ample math to explain any phenomena. She’s an engineer after all. And, she’s not mad. At least, not yet. But when shadows melt out of shadows, mists are alive with voices and dreams carry her to worlds unlike her own, Aoife’s hardpressed to wonder whether or not she’s finally lost it.

Do any of you guys like your grimy, black and white movie reels?

What’s that in the mists?

When I read this book, I feel like I’m sitting in one of those old school theatres, where the projectionist is cranking the film reel and the images are blotched and jumpy. I’m alone in the theatre and the skin at the back of my neck crawls, and my eyes are transfixed. The world of The Iron Thorn is grey and dark and dripping damp and steam, with gas lanterns that throw shadows across narrow lanes and deathly smells and the sound of wet smacking hunger crawling plaintively from the sewage. From the first chapter, when Aoife and Cal take a shortcut to get back to the Academy in time for dinner, you feel stalked, like a piece of ridiculously juicy meat out after curfew. And that alone kept me on the edge of my seat for the entire read.

The characters themselves perfectly counterpoint each other. Aoife, so practical she always carries her engineer’s tools with her and doesn’t let little creepy crawlies stop her from getting places. She can’t afford to be scared when scarier things live inside her mind and hold her in their grip, and she won’t believe or trust until she sees it herself. Cal, baseball and pulp-fiction enthusiast, danger-magnet who always seems to find trouble that Aoife has to puzzle a way out of. He’s full of bravado but knock-kneed when it counts, apologetically curious of the unknown and confidently sure of the Proctors and their necrovirus warnings. And Dean, mysterious cigarette slinger who always seems to know what he’s doing and where to find lost things. Been many places, grown up too fast, seen unspeakable things and bargained with the roughest of them. Here you have three characters that bring both trouble and help to each other, grinding the engines of an entertaining story.

I found Aoife, in particular, immediately likeable. She’s the only girl left who qualifies to enter the School of Engineers in Lovecraft. She’s a charity student who will do what she has to in order to survive Lovecraft and keep the Madhouse at bay. She wishes so much that her Mother was not mad, that the crazy things she says are rooted in truth. She misses her brother, and she worries about her own future and most of the time, she doesn’t know who to trust. She’s got a hidden secret she wishes she could unburden on someone else but she’s afraid, so afraid that eyes lit with friendship could turn to fear and hostility the moment a whisper of the necrovirus is attached to her name. Friends and family have turned each other in before at Lovecraft, and the atmosphere of paranoia the Proctors spread seeps under the skin and can’t be shaken off too easily.

The Iron Thorn reads like a suspense, and you’re racing for the truth alongside Aoife, whose looming deadline holds far more than just her own life at stake. There are powers beyond her own comprehension that have their hands on the threads of her fate. The more she reads about her Father’s life in Arkham House, the more she wonders if it was a good idea to snoop around in the family’s secrets. Warning after warning to turn back, pretend you never knew, escape…fly by, too late for her to act on. You want her to heed the warnings but more than anything you want to know the truth. You’re biting your nails every time she or any of the other characters step foot outside the house at dusk. The stuff out there is just so creepy, whyever would you venture out there on your own? Forget about the world outside the house, the house itself is creepy enough! Every time Dean taps along the wall and mentions that there might be another secret room or passageway, my heartbeat ramps up, and I wonder what new horror could be trapped in there, living or dead. Every time Aoife shuts herself in a room, somewhere far away from the warmth of the hearth fire in the kitchen and the babble of conversation, somewhere lonely and lost in the maze of Arkham House where a cry for help is muffled by walls and doors, my creep radar starts beeping. But I like that about Aoife, she’s brave, and she’s not afraid of having to deal with her troubles alone. In fact, she’s used to it, and the more Cal begs her to just come home with him, back to Lovecraft Academy and sanity, the more she realizes that she can’t unthink what she knows. She can’t turn back and pretend to be the good proper role-model student anymore. She’s gone too deep.

The pacing of the story carries you further and further away from what you knew of the world at the beginning of the story. Surprises unfurl with subtlety along with the reader’s realizations just as a good story should. Just like nothing feels for sure for Aoife, nothing’s really told to you, the reader, and you’ve got to infer many a thing based on hints dropped here and there. I like the story. It’s well-told and carries an atmosphere with it that lingers like a wisp of smoke after the pipe’s been put out. Certainly, you should read it if you like this stuff. A very gothic, creepy read – a mash-up of science-fiction and steam punk fantasy. It has a feel a bit similar to Cold Magic by Kate Elliot, but information is slipped to you on a need-to-know basis. So, if you were scared of the crazy world building in Cold Magic, but you like the idea of a creepy Lovecraftian steampunk with magic and science, you should try The Iron Thorn. One of the best reads I’ve had so far this summer, I believe.

Here’s a quote from Caitlin Kittredge about the world of The Iron Thorn (taken from Steamed!): “Steampunk called out to the type of story I wanted to write—one not just about a girl trying to save her brother from the machinations of the faerie court, but one about a totilitarian government who keeps its citizens “safe” with its great machines, but also uses those same machines to grind dissidents under its heel.  Take away the vast winds of change swept in by the Manhattan Project, and you’ve got a government that won World War II with the help of steam, a government that demanded total obedience from its people, lest they lose faith in science and reason and allow the unthinkable to happen—to allow in the magic that, though science might try to stamp it out, is evident in every corner of the world I created.”

Next book will be coming out Feb. 2012 entitled: The Nightmare Garden (The Iron Codex, Book 2)

I’m not quite so mad that I have to wait almost another year for the second book because this ending was still relatively conclusive – at least, it satisfied most of the things I wanted to know for now –  compared to other endings authors throw on poor readers now-a-days 😛

Excerpt:

“We walked for a bit, the sounds of Derleth Street fading and new ones creeping in. The faint music from the Jack & Crow. The drip of moisture from the roadbed of the bridge above. The rumble of lorries crossing the span to and from the foundry with their loads of iron.

“This isn’t so bad,” Cal said, too boldly, too loudly. We passed boarded-up row houses, their windows all broken, diamond panes like insect eyes. Alleys that wound at head-turning angles to nowhere. I felt the damp of the river, and shivered.

No student of the Schools was allowed to come to Dunwich Lane. I’d always thought it was to keep the boys away from the prostitutes and poppy dens that we weren’t supposed to know about, but now I wondered if I’d been wrong. The cold worsened. My exposed skin was so chilled it felt crystalline.

“Say,” Cal said, making me jump. “Did you listen in to The Inexplicables on the aether tubes last night? Really good this week. ‘Adventure of the Black Claw.'”

I clenched my fist and resolved that I’d be braver from now on. Dunwich Lane was poor and seedy, but it wasn’t going to sneak up on me. “Didn’t catch it. I was studying.” The only time it was acceptable for us to hear about the way the world used to be – before the virus spread, before the Consortium of Nations built Engines after the first great war, before any of the curfews and government police in every city – was when it was being mocked by cheap, state-sanctioned tube plays.

Cal ate them up. I rather hated them.

“You do too much of that. Studying,” Cal said. “You’re going to need glasses before long, and you know that they say: boys don’t make passes – ”

“Cal…” I stopped, irritated, in the center of the street. I was all set to lecture him when a scream echoed out of the alley between the next pair of houses. “…shut your piehole,” I finished.

Cal’s mouth twisted down and he froze next to me. We stood in the road, waiting. The scream came again, along with soft sobs. I had a memory, unwanted, of the Cristobel madhouse and the madhouse before that, the ever-present crying on the wards. If my fingers hadn’t been balled up they’d be shaking like dead leaves.

Cal started forward. “We should go help.”

“Wait,” I said, pulling at his coat. “Just wait.” I didn’t want to walk ahead, and I sure didn’t want Cal leaving me here alone. Why had I taken the shortcut? Why had I tried to be clever?

The sobbing escalated, and Cal jerked his arm out of my grasp, running forward and making a hard turn into the alley. “I’m going to help her!” he yelled at me before he disappeared around the corner.

“Dammit,” I swore, because no professors were around to stick a detention hour on me for cursing. “Cal! Cal, don’t go down there!”

I followed him into the alley, his straw-colored hair bobbing in the dark like a swamp light. “Cal,” I whispered, not out of discretion but purely out of fear. I’m not a boy. I admit when I’m scared, and the screams had done it to me. “It might not be what you think.” If Cal got himself hurt, and it was my fault…I hurried after him.

From the entrance of the alley, I could spy a pile of rags, a hunched hobo’s form in oilskins and overalls. The smell of decayy permeated everything, sweet like a rotted flower is sweet. Cal had plowed to a stop, confused.

“That stinks.”

I watched as the nightjar lifted its head from its feast of the transient, the few scraps of hair still clinging to its skull fine as cobwebs. My throat constricted, sweet bile creeping onto the back of my tongue. I’d never seen a nightjar up close. Never smelled  one. It was worse than any warning our professors could give.

“Oh, please help me,” it said in a human girl’s voice. “I’m so cold…so very alone…” It drew back swollen black lips to reveal its set of four fangs.

“Oh, shit,” Cal said plainly.

Other Reviews:

Loving Books: “Oh, how awesome their adventures are when they are traveling to the home of Aoife’s father! I loved it. The world was so complex, yet so wonderfully described that I really liked how the book was built up. At 500+ pages, the book was quite big, but don’t let that hold you back! Once you start reading, it’s like a rollercoaster that you want to keep riding.”

WhatchYaReading?: “All in all, this was a STEAMPUNK (I wonder how many more times I can say it…) adventure, with awesome characters, cool gadgets, a race against time and enemies, and a house that IS a Rube Goldberg machine. What can go wrong”

-Nely from All About {n}: “Unfortunately, I didn’t love The Iron Thorn, but I didn’t hate it either.  There were many moments that I was taken in by it but others that just didn’t connect with me.  This is the first installment in The Iron Codex series so be aware that there is an abrupt ending.  I can’t say for sure that I’ll be reading the rest in this series, but for fans of Steampunk and fantasy this might be one to interest you.”

Rating: 4.5 geas folded carefully folded and waiting to be sprung on someone

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10 comments

  1. Ooooh er, this does sound good. It sounds like it might make a good read for Carl’s RIP challenge which starts in September, so I’ll make a note of it. I love the H.P. Lovecraft references… Arkham House etc. Thanks for an excellent review.

  2. My latest kick is steampunk and I’ve been searching for books with that theme to read. This sounds like a great book, and so much the better if it includes goggles! I am the proud owner of a pair of 1930s welding goggles, with which I am rather obsessed. Anyway… I’ll have to add this book to my already teetering TBR stack.

  3. Cath – Oh yes, this one’s full of Lovecraft references! But, steampunk is still nice and shiny new to me, so I’ll be tickled by pretty much any steampunk for a while 🙂

  4. Allegra – Oh, neat! How did you come into owning these goggles? And yes, it seems like steampunk might be the next vampire, haha. But, even with that mind, there’s more to this book than just goggles and dirigibles, there’s only ONE dirigible in this one, I believe.

  5. When is this set? Or is it set in an alternate world that has Dorothy Parker and vaguely resembles the 19somethings? :p

  6. Jenny – yes, I’ve been telling everyone it feels pseudo victorian but I think that’s just me thinking steampunk+googles+dirigibles = Victorian period, which is not quite the case here. It’s more like 1900s somewhere, on a website I read that it’s probably 1950s! And no, Dorothy Parker is not in this one 😦

  7. Oh, I am so happy you enjoyed this! I own it, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet. It was a big deal that I bought it and then I haven’t even read it. Go me! lol

  8. Kailana – Haha, I’m guilty of owning many a MUST-READ book and shamefully not reading it, too. You should get on it, I quite enjoyed it 😛

  9. you have a way of writing reviews that makes me add books to my wishlist i’d previous passed up. if you wrote the blurbs on the covers/dustjackets, i’d probably buy a lot more books.

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