The Iron Ship by K. M. McKinley
I started off intending to simply review K. M. McKinley’s steampunk fantasy novel. I was surprised at its relatively low number of Goodreads and Amazon reviews despite being out for over a year. Perhaps it had not tickled the fancy of others in quite the same way that it worked for me. However, in setting out to explain how the book impressed me, I found myself writing as much about the interactive nature of reading, as about McKinley’s book. The response we have to any book is as individual as the relationships we form with other people. The perspectives and experiences we bring to our reading combine with the author’s writing of the book, so that each reader fashions their own particular understanding and appreciation of the book.
I have seen this many times in reading other people’s reviews of books that I have also read. Some have hated ones I loved, others have loved ones I hated. Nonetheless, each time I have recognised the book the other reviewer describes. There are the same features that I saw, the same characters. Sometimes issues that were a mere wrinkle of annoyance to me – as I chased down an intriguing plot – were deal breakers to others who could not get past an unacceptable character flaw. Other times I have been unable to persist in a well written book because of the liberties being taken with science. This is why I have never understood the extent to which some impassioned fans become evangelical about their own revered favourites. The assertion that any particular book is “the best book ever and anyone who thinks otherwise is a fool” is not fact but opinion (and a rather vacuous one at that).
My own thoughts on The Iron Ship were so intertwined with this matter of how the reader’s past experience forges their understanding of what they read that I could not entirely disentangle “the review” and “the article” and I have ended up attempting to deliver both.
The Iron Ship is a multiple point of view steampunk fantasy where six siblings and a handful of other minor points of view find the world unravelling around them despite their best efforts to ravel it in a manner of their own choosing. Six main characters may seem like a lot for anyone but GRRM himself, but McKinley handles them well – careful to introduce them in pairs and trios so each has the opportunity to define themselves well enough in the reader’s mind. There is Guis the playwright, Trassan the engineer, Garten the civil servant, Aarin the guider of the dead, Rel the soldier, and Katriona the sister just as gifted as any of her brothers yet denied the status of an occupation. The siblings inhabit a staggeringly imaginative and richly described world. Its complexities might be off-putting to some but the particular features of world and story resonated on many levels for me. There are (happily) no info dumps but that means all the variety of the Kressinds’ world must be revealed through character action and interaction.
I find myself studying books as much as reading them these days. Maybe not quite as Teresa Frohock describes, but I am interested in the author’s motivations and inspirations in that they help to illuminate the story for me. In my own writing I am aware of a wide variety of influences that have at different times swayed my writing or my plot down one line or another. Films, books, history, plays, history (again), and songs have all coloured what I write.
It makes me keen to try to spot and savour the influences that shaped other works. There is McKinley’s acknowledgement that her own brood of brothers was vigorously mined to help create the Kressind men. There is the knowledge that Hadrian’s Wall grew taller and colder in George RR Martin’s imagination until it became The Wall of Westeros and that the great houses of York and Lancaster from the Wars of the Roses became Stark and Lannister. There are parallels between anti-heroic Warden’s wartime backstory – in Daniel Polansky’s Low Town series – and the “lions led by donkeys” through the First World War trench warfare at and beyond the Somme. I find such moments of recognition enrich my reading – rather than jarring it – and McKinley’s The Iron Ship had me smiling at them more than most.
The same familiarity can ease a reader’s understanding of a complex environment. Authors are quite rightly told to shy away from the info-dumps. The encyclopaedic prologues, the opening cast lists, the tables of weights and measures used in some fictional land – these are all anathema to most fantasy readers who savour an immersive experience, letting themselves be lost in a foreign land and swept along by the tide of times within it. But in the more deeply multi-layered worlds, that complexity brings additional challenges – the reader can be swept out of their depth trying to work out the interactions between different people, places and races none of which offer a familiar handle, a tether to the experience of their own real world or past reading. The reader may hunger for that equivalent of a Cepheid variable star (the cosmic candles) by which their understanding of the scale and scope of the author’s universe can be triangulated.
A glimpse of the familiar can be amusing too – such as the “Holy Stone” of Mark Lawrence’s Wheel of Osheim – an ancient artefact, pineapple shaped, fist sized with a strange ring pull at the top that is part of a bishop’s instruments of office – though with the admonition that those who are tempted by it risk an unspeakable damnation. It is at moments like that, that the author almost breaks the fourth wall to wink at the reader and to share an understanding between writer and reader that passes entirely over the heads of the unfortunate characters on the pages between them.
In The Iron Ship’s exquisitely fashioned world, I found many such moments of sympathetic recognition. The story carries the siblings in different directions from their home in Karsa City at the south-western tip of the Rathian Peninsular as they seek fame, fortune, or just a comfortable living by different means. There is a hierarchy by which the excess sons of Karsa city’s new and old aristocracy find employment – reminiscent of the Georgian England in which Jane Austen wrote. There Darcy’s contemporaries may have found that after the first son inherited the estate, the second went to the Navy, the third to the army and the fourth to the clergy. In McKinley’s world it is fourth son Rel who ends up in the army and – for a certain sin of moral failure – is posted to the far away fortress at the Gates of the World.
En route he passes through Mohacs-Gravo, like many great cities actually a pair of overgrown settlements separated (but for a few bridges) by a great river. In the same manner I could mention Buda-pest or Ankh-Morpork. When Rel reaches his destination he joins a cosmopolitan garrison, drawn from all over the hundred kingdoms of Ruthnia, making it seem like a cross between the French Foreign Legion of Fort Zinderneuf and the Black Brotherhood of Westeros.
Around the Gates of the World a swirl of nearly lawless prospectors seek their fortunes in the black sands in a rush to wealth of Klondike proportions – trailing behind the inevitable swarm of extortionist traders. The cry has gone out “there’s glimmer in them there sands” (or words to that effect) and glimmer is the raw material of magic. Magisters bridge the gap between magic and machine as they help harness glimmer and make it a servant of mankind. However – in its instability – glimmer shares some similarity with (say) enriched plutonium and certainly has its weaponised variants.
McKinley’s earth has two moons and a dark twin planet that between them drive a complex tidal system where the sea level rises and falls on a scale undreamt of in even global warmings worst nightmares. The great tides dwarf any tsunami ever imagined and ensure that humanity must live only on high ground surrounded by a tidal littoral many miles wide.
Beyond the more frequent cycle of inundating tides one character the Hag of Mogawn thinks she has found an underlying pattern of falling civilisations. Obliterations that occur every 4000 years seem to be linked to the approaching nearpoint of the Twin. I was reminded of a book I read long ago which argued that our own Sun must have a dark distant twin (as yet undiscovered but provisionally named Nemesis). This dim star potentially comes close enough every 26 million years to dislodge a shower of comets that bombards the Earth and triggers a mass extinctions not just of the dinosaurs (65 million years ago) but also 39 million years ago and 13 million years ago.
While McKinley’s dark twin may not be dislodging comets, it is a harbinger of doom as all six siblings of the Kressind family find themselves swept up in increasingly tumultuous events. The Hag of Mogawn (a cruel and undeserved epithet bestowed by men who should know better) has a loyal servant Mansanio who conjured up for me an image of Malvolio from Twelfth Night. However, if Shakespeare’s buffoon was – in anyway – McKinley’s inspiration she takes the character down an altogether darker alley.
Mogawn Island itself is just a massive tethered lump of floatstone – and “Floating stone” only seems like an oxymoron until one remembers that volcanic pumice floats. The same substance is the raw material for most ships with pretensions to an ocean going nature. McKinley’s world makes limited use of wood (well why would you when rock floats) and horses – incidentally – are extinct.
Trassan Kressind, second son but the one most trusted by his cantankerous father, is an engineer (a profession long overdue for some favourable literary treatment – says the reviewer with an engineering degree). He has a mission to explore a fabled relic of a city lost in the southern frozen wastes. But there is competition from a rival – a race to the pole if you like – that had me thinking of Scott and Amundsen back at the turn of the twentieth century.
With such volatile tides, the oceans are already a dangerous place for floatstone ships. But ships of stone are no match for the McKinley’s King of the Drowned whose realm Trassan must cross with as much legal, physical and magical protection as he can gather. When his royal highness does put in an appearance he makes Bill Nighy’s Davy Jones from Pirates of the Caribbean look like a children’s entertainer. Hence the imperative to build the eponymous vessel – Kressind’s Iron Ship. I have been to the Titanic exhibition in Belfast and also to see the SS Great Britain in Bristol. McKinley’s depiction of the challenges in building the biggest, the best in the face of popular disbelief, is masterful. A worthy evocation of trail blazers like SS Great Britain, while Kressind – apart from a few amorous entanglements – makes a fine kind of Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
As you may have gathered, light bulbs of recognition and association were flashing on as I devoured McKinley’s book – a comfortable read with well-paced chapters each told from a different point of view. And it was those flashes of familiarity that made the complex world so readily digestible – the story drawing me in, just as much as I drew it in.
That is not to say that familiarity in anyway meant a lack of originality. Inspiration is not the same things as imitation, and McKinley does some very different things with the world she has created. There are gods in her world, fewer than their used to be since a great mage drove them out of their Gods’ Home – a sort of urban mezzanine floor hovering over the city of Perus – but a few lurk around still. One in particular cadges drinks from punters in a local bar on his evenings off from sitting as a museum exhibit.
Then there are the fascinating race of Tyn, both lesser and greater varieties living in and bound by magic. They are neither gnomes, nor dwarves, hobbits nor elves, and only the people of Karsa seem to have gone some way to taming them.
I have perhaps waxed over long on the McKinley’s worldbuilding. After all, stories are about people more than things, motivations more than places, and conflict more than commerce. The Iron Ship delivers all those essential elements and McKinley writes well – picking a page at random I find this line, “He could rarely find his hammer, or his shoe, or his mistress, and therefore had many spares of each.”
If I were to criticise the book it maybe that – even at 499 pages – it did not quite give its various points of view enough airtime. The siblings’ stories are a sequence of intertwined novellas and – when one character reappeared at the end it took me a while to remind myself who he was and how he came to be where he had got to. A complex world breeds complex stories and McKinley has flung out threads in widely disparate directions; it will take some weaving to bring them back together.
However, the experience of this first book is a reassurance that she will do so with lively and imaginative writing as she builds novelty from familiarity – much as Trassan Kressind hopes to build his innovative iron ship by stretching the envelope of known science (and magic).
This review appeared on Fantasy-Faction on August 15, 2016.