Book Review: The Iron Thorn by Caitlin Kittredge 

By  Turn The Page

‘In the city of Lovecraft, the Proctors rule and a great Engine turns below the streets, grinding any resistance to their order to dust. The necrovirus is blamed for Lovecraft’s epidemic of madness, for the strange and eldritch creatures that roam the streets after dark, and for everything that the city leaders deem Heretical—born of the belief in magic and witchcraft. And for Aoife Grayson, her time is growing shorter by the day.

Aoife Grayson’s family is unique, in the worst way—every one of them, including her mother and her elder brother Conrad, has gone mad on their 16th birthday. And now, a ward of the state, and one of the only female students at the School of Engines, she is trying to pretend that her fate can be different.’

The Iron Thorn was a really unusual novel in so many ways, and my first steampunk novel – a genre I think I could really come to love!

The whole novel has this really… gritty feel to it which I really liked – and a dark atmosphere with some truly terrifying creatures, not to mention more than a few creepy characters. Quite unlike any other YA novel I have read before, The Iron Thorn is a rich, complex story set in a world of iron and machinery where logic and reason rule and witchcraft and sorcery is deemed heretic. Then there is the Necrovirus…

OK – this is one intense novel – there was so much to take in, so many mysteries and secrets, it certainly took me a while to get my head around it all – and while everything came together and clicked near the end, Kittredge has masterfully woven several different story arcs and three different worlds, with conflicting characters whose loyalties we don’t yet know or understand, conspiracies, and a heroine caught in the middle, as yet still very much in the dark about her family and her own abilities. I have so many questions – but won’t discuss them here as I don’t want to give too much away. But don’t worry – this isn’t a novel where nothing ever gets answered, we learn a lot throughout the course of the book it made my head spin lol – it’s just that Kittredge reveals one thing and then quick as anything, turns the tables again, leaving you with a whole new set of questions. And the ending! Just when I thought knew where everything stood – all hell brakes loose!

As well as the complexities of the plot in The Iron Thorn, it can take a while to get used to the world Kittredge has created, there is a lot of name dropping, often with little explanation and this world was just so utterly foreign – all machinery, and cryptic characters, madhouses, and viral creatures like nightjars, ghouls and automatons powered by aether or clockwork. And that’s just the world as Aoife knows it. It becomes pretty obvious pretty quickly that she is just as much in the dark about what is really going on, what is truth, and what is lies, as we do. As the story progress, whole new worlds are opened up to her, bringing even more unfamiliar words. This was frustrating at times but I decided to just give myself up to it and trust in the author – and I’m very glad that I did.

Kittredge’s imagination is astounding – and there are several disturbing creatures in The Iron Thorn that actually made me shudder as I read about them. The ravens, mechanical spying creatures were incredibly creepy.

‘The raven’s feather gleamed liquid black in the cold starlight. Their eyes blazed with yellow aether, burning up the night sky like a flock of sparks. Their beaks were glass and their talons were sets of tiny gears and rods that clacked and grasped as they swooped in a low V over the river. Their feathers were hammered aluminum, painted black, and their innards were marvels of clockwork that printed everything their burning eyes saw onto tiny lantern reels. 

A raven, unlike an automaton, could see, and if it marked a heretic, it could fly back to Ravenhouse and croak to its masters from its metal throat.’

If that wasn’t insane enough – there are also fey in this book – and not the cute, attractive kind either.

I loved Aoife (ee-fah). Finally, a truly independent, strong, driven female character. She has a hell of a lot of pressure on her – her mother is insane and locked away in an asylum, her elder brother Conrad is missing, disappearing after losing his mind and attacking her, fully expected to go mad by herself and everyone else, a ward of state-dependent on charity, not to mention one of the only females at the School of Engineering – she has to fight so much harder than anyone else just to be accepted. And when she receives a secret letter from Conrad with the single word, ‘HELP’, she fights hell to get to him. It’s rare that you come across a heroine like this. Aoife accepts help or advice when she needs it, but more often than not she just gets on with things, without waiting around for someone to hold her hand and she wasn’t stupid in the process. She is fiercely loyal to her best friend Cal (despite his sexist, pompous attitude) and to her brother. She never gives up – constantly fighting for her life, her sanity, a cure. And she’s an engineer. How could you not love her?

There is a spot of romance, but thankfully it’s not overdone. I say that mainly because Aoife was such a brilliant kick-ass heroine, I loved that her developing feelings never changed the person she was, or became the focal point of the story. But also because, I just didn’t like Dean very much. I wanted to – I really did, but he got on my last nerve calling Aoife ‘doll’ and ‘kid’ and worst of all, ‘princess’, all the time.

Cal. Oh Cal. How I hated you. For 2/3rds of this book. And then – Kittredge totally did it again and did a full 180 on me. Aoife and Cal’s friendship suddenly took on a whole new meaning and I loved it. Looking back – there were subtle clues all along. Don’t ever change Cal.

Kittredge word’s evoke such a strong atmosphere you really felt you as though you were there. Though it took me a while to settle into, I ended up loving this story. Sure, some parts were a little clunky and hard to follow but The Iron Thorn was just such a distinct and unique read. Parts were incredibly creepy and the descriptions so vivid – I just wanted to illustrate it. I love love loved the steampunk imagery and Victorian vibe and the sheer detail was just great – I’m no expert on steampunk in general, but I think those who love the genre will be happy with The Iron Thorn. Just the mechanisms of Aoife’s ancestral home were fantastic! I found myself itching to explore that house…

Books Worth Reading:

The Iron Thorn is a steampunk novel, but it also has elements of a dystopian, the paranormal, romance, coming-of-age, a journey, witchcraft and sorcery. There are ghouls, mechanical monsters, fey, gatekeepers, mythical creatures, heretics, and sky pirates! There’s a necrovirus that causes people go insane, a controlling government hiding something, secret letters written in invisible ink, the Weird, a mysterious family history, creepy mists concealing another world and a heroine you can really root for, one that holds her own and makes human mistakes. Could this novel get any cooler!?

It’s by no means perfect and The Iron Thorn certainly won’t be for everyone but there is lots to get excited over and I would urge everyone to give it a go. It finishes not quite on a cliffhanger but with a perfect set up for the next book.

‘There are seventeen madhouses in the city of Lovecraft. I’ve visited all of them. 

My mother likes to tell me her dreams when I visit. She sits in the window of the Cristobel Charitable Asylum and strokes the iron bars covering the glass like they are the strings of a harp. “I went to the lily field last night,” she murmurs.

Her dreams are never dreams. They are always journeys, explorations, excavations of her mad mind, or, if her mood is bleak, ominous portents for me to heed. The smooth brass gears of my chronometer churned past four-thirty and I put it back in my shirt pocket. Soon the asylum would close to visitors and I could go home. The dark came early in October. It’s not safe for a girl to be out walking on her own, in Hallows’ Eve weather. 

I called it that, the sort of days when the sky was the same color as the smoke from the Nephilim Foundry across the river, and you could taste winter on the back of your tongue.’

~ page 1.

Recommended Reading Age: 16+