Review: The Iron Ship by K.M. McKinley

Posted by DarkChaplain at 8/06/2016
The Twin flees across the sky, bringing in its wake the Great Tide. The Earth trembles under the shadow of its brother. Times are changing.

The order of the world is in turmoil. An age of industry is beginning, an age of machines fuelled by magic. Sprawling cities rise, strange devices stalk the land. New money brings new power. The balance between the Hundred Kingdoms is upset. For the first time in generations the threat of war looms.

In these turbulent days, fortunes can be won. Magic runs strong in the Kressind family. Six siblings strive – one to triumph in a world of men, one to survive murderous intrigue, one to master forbidden sorcery, one to wash away his sins, one to contain the terrible energies of his soul.

And one will do the impossible, by marrying the might of magic and iron in the heart of a great ship, to cross an ocean that cannot be crossed.
This novel has been my bedside companion for about a year. I have been reading it on and off, mostly in waiting rooms at various doctors'. As a result, I read a chapter or three in bursts. Sadly I ended up subconciously associating health issues with the book and read it infrequently as a result. However, that is all on me alone, and the book itself actually saw me through some otherwise stressful and at times even scary hours.
I have been wanting to talk about it for almost as long as I own it, but always figured I should finish it first. Now I have, so here's a review!

The Story:
"The Twin flees across the sky, bringing in its wake the Great Tide. The Earth trembles under the shadow of its brother. Times are changing.

The order of the world is in turmoil. An age of industry is beginning, an age of machines fuelled by magic. Sprawling cities rise, strange devices stalk the land. New money brings new power. The balance between the Hundred Kingdoms is upset. For the first time in generations the threat of war looms.

In these turbulent days, fortunes can be won. Magic runs strong in the Kressind family. Six siblings strive – one to triumph in a world of men, one to survive murderous intrigue, one to master forbidden sorcery, one to wash away his sins, one to contain the terrible energies of his soul.

And one will do the impossible, by marrying the might of magic and iron in the heart of a great ship, to cross an ocean that cannot be crossed."

The Review:
The Iron Ship is a very slow burner. It takes its sweet time to introduce things and characters and flesh out the setting. But once the ship gets going, it is difficult not to be deeply invested in the fates of the Kressind siblings and their peers.

The industrial revolution-style of the setting, adorned with steampunky goodness, magic and a promising underlying mythology, is engrossing and fully fleshed-out. Yet for all the mythical elements, the book still maintains a healthy amount of realism and accountability and presents the reader with a world that is easy to visualize in its workings and even architectural style.
So yes, The Iron Ship takes its time to get the plot rolling, and jumps from character to character, especially early on. Some of these characters might become fully relevant to the plot again until the last third or even quarter of the book, but all of them contribute to realizing a tightly-knit civilization with all its prejudices, social problems and even glories. To me, seeing the city of Karsa unfold before my eyes was wondrous, with different aspects being filled in, and commented on, from chapter to chapter.

Sadly, this often comes at the cost of rapid event progression and quick payoffs. A lot of books, and by extension authors, are afraid to let the reader soak in the details and instead try to keep their attention with a shotgun approach and little subtlety. While that can be a very entertaining romp for sure, I love it when an author takes the risk to actually establish their setting and character before striking me with disaster or racking up a list of character deaths.
For many, this approach won't work, and they might feel lost and confused in Karsa City, the Morthrocksey Mills or the dozens of countries or kingdoms that make up the Hundred in McKinley's world of Ruthnia. There is a certain degree of info-bombing going on for sure. However, those who dare step into the book and forge on through the thick early sections will find a cast of compelling characters that move further and further into the spotlight, and whose lives become center of the stage.
It is a rewarding experience, and I would recommend sticking with the book if you end up struggling.

I have been reading the book on and off over the past year(!), though I will admit that the fault is completely my own, and I never thought badly of it. In fact, I adored the finely crafted story from the start, and often felt guilty for not reading it faster. I simply ended up associating it subconsciously with health-related appointments and waiting rooms, and it was tough breaking out of that. But even then, hours waiting passed quickly and relatively pleasantly thanks to this novel. It isn't easy for me to focus on reading for longer stretches when people around me are coughing or get up to see a doctor while I get more nervous by the hour, waiting to be called in myself. However, The Iron Ship managed to draw me in and forget checking the clock every two minutes, and instead focus on the Kressind siblings and their relationships.

The cast here is extensive. In fact, even towards the end of the book, it still kept growing and setting up future events. There is, for example, one character who I fully expect to be aboard the Iron Ship, to be revealed in the sequel, The City of Ice. I was surprised that the author had the patience to hold off on doing that towards the climax of the story, and indeed, I may be completely wrong in my prediction - but it would fit so neatly, I doubt it.

Either way, the big players of the story are the Kressind siblings:
Trassan, the inventor of the Iron Ship. Garten, a bureaucrat of the admirality. Guis, a playwright with something sinister haunting him. Aarin, a Guider seeing the spirits of the dead to peace. Rel, a young dracon-riding soldier sent to the Gates of the World as punishment for indecent behavior. And not to forget dear Katriona, whose station as a woman is keeping her from being the grand merchant and businesswoman she could be.
On top of these, there are an intellectual countess, shunned for her appearance and odd behavior; a businessman who many will find hard to gauge on the like-dislike scale, and various other, colorful and diverse characters who provide both conflict and support to the protagonists.

There is a lot going on here, especially once the ship nears completion. Social issues like emancipation, the loss of mystery in the world, a coming apocalypse, the departure of Gods by the hands of a powerful magician, a technological armsrace, racial discrimination against non-humans, workers' rights.... The Iron Ship manages to tackle all of these topics and more to greater or lesser extent and as a result manages to be authentic, despite all its weird ideas. When Katriona dares defy societal norms, her actions, and those of the people around her, seem plausible and relatable. When Aarin goes to meet his mentor for a final time, their relationship feels familiar and touching. When Guis struggles with his paranoia yet seeks to overcome it, the reader can feel the tension rising. It is a gripping web of narratives that might just have been spread out too far at times, but are still highly compelling in themselves and click together later on.

The Iron Ship is by no means perfect. It has a bunch of problems (including, at times, odd typos that shouldn't have slipped through the editing process), the early pacing and scattered narratives chief among them. I can see where it might lose people by meandering. But when all was said and done, I was taken aback and wanted more. The trade paperback is over 500 pages long, with a comparatively small font, and yet I yearned for more, for the book to continue. Thankfully, the aforementioned sequel is due this December (according to Amazon), and I preordered it months ago.
The last 100 or so pages were full of twists and turns that will have big repercussions for the series. I can't wait to find out what they will entail.

Hopefully McKinley gets to write a bunch more books to follow. If this is the degree of world building one can expect from him, oh boy, are we in for a treat!

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The Iron Ship on Goodreads

About the Author

I'm known as DarkChaplain across the internet, and call myself a passionate gamer and book enthusiast. I have been blogging mostly about games for a couple of years, but finally found my way to reviewing a different medium: Books. Honestly, I prefer that job so far.
Follow Me on Twitter @TheDarkChaplain


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