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Julie Kagawa – The Iron King

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A brilliant illustration of what is happening as we embrace technology and forget our dreams. Because it isn’t all about the fantastical.

Publisher: Mira Ink (Harlequin)
Pages: 355
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-0-7783-0434-0
First Published: 2010
Date Reviewed: 19th July 2011
Rating: 4.5/5

Meghan has never been popular owing to her family’s relative poverty. She is also not particularly happy as her mother often neglects her, her stepfather reacts as though he genuinely forgets she exists, and her real father disappeared when she was six. But she does have a brother and her best friend, Robbie. Yet four year old Ethan says there are monsters in his wardrobe, and Meghan keeps seeing things that aren’t really there – or are they? And come to think of it she doesn’t really know who Robbie is. When Ethan is taken by the monsters that truly were in his wardrobe, Meghan finds herself on a quest to the world of the Fey to save him. Everything she’s ever known is viable to change.

The Iron King is a piece of fiction that, like many other works being published in this era, successfully blends the current trends in young adult literature with a strong lesson for life. There is a high school, there are cranky parents, but Kagawa is focused on the faery world she has created. As soon as she can get Meghan out of our own world, she does.

The initial journey through the world is very quick and definitely seems rushed but the reader shouldn’t be put off because it slows down sufficiently once Kagawa reaches the main storyline. The world is well developed and magical, if you’ll pardon the pun, the differences between the Winter Court and Summer Court, the two opposing imperial domains, making for a broad reading experience that enables the place to be utterly engrossing. And the book uses elements from different beliefs about faeries to create a diverse land. There are many different creatures, there is the idea that faeries die when humans stop believing in them, and there are fragments from classic works such as Alice In Wonderland and the plays of Shakespeare.

The characters are the usual fare for young adult literature – a kind of love triangle, a good guy, a bad guy – but the heroine is difficult to stereotype because she is neither weak nor strong. She has the capacity to get on your nerves at times, but you can’t say that she doesn’t try to fight, and does.

The book is at once a true fantasy and technologically futuristic. It deals with the idea that our dreams create fairies and that as our dreams change to those of technology, and logic brings an end to faith, then the creations change to suit. Thus the book holds a powerful message: although technology is good – and Kagawa never suggests we abandon it, the heroine keeps hold of her iPod throughout – the proposal is that we should not forget the magic that is nature and all the happiness it can grant us. Where nature is colourful, technology is more often monotone and where nature brings true happiness, technology helps us achieve, but we are constantly having to ask if it makes us happy. Indeed one could say that with the advent of social networking and the demise of the requirement to meet people in person in order to communicate, we are missing out on the happiness contact with others can bring.

The cautious reader should be aware that there are a few references to sex that are rather explicit and sadistic in nature owing to the darkness that the author presents the faery world to be. The romance in the book is chaste, but the fey enjoy taunting humans sexually in a way that a younger reader may find frightening simply because of the descriptions. This explicitness speaks for Kagawa’s approach overall, she is not afraid to include horrific images when appropriate and, apart from Meghan’s weak episodes, doesn’t shy away from being straight with you.

Ultimately what happens while reading is that the idea we have that there can be too much technology is re-enforced, because nobody wants a techno fairy over the sparkling beautiful things we think of now, do they? The difference between adults and children is incorporated – where children have the freedom to imagine whatever they wish and believe in what they will, there are faeries; where adults cease to believe because it is considered childish, but believe in science, there is a creativity that can be harmful if left unwatched. Forget the faeries, it’s a very important issue in our world in general.

Of course a book that deals with faeries that are under threat was never going to be more emotionally invested in the Iron fey than the original fey, and throughout the book, while the reader roots for the originals, you can’t help but remember that yes, life was okay without some of the technology (medicinal advances are very important), and that we got by without it.

But perhaps the most pressing lesson is that we should simply keep believing. Kagawa is not saying we should always believe in fairies but that maybe we should keep an open mind, or at the very least consider the possibility of other phenomena. There are plenty of supernatural things in the world that different people believe in but that science cannot prove, because it is beyond the realm of science at this time. And just because science cannot prove something does not mean that something does not exist. We know this anyway, because of life, and faith, and also because science can get it wrong. But sometimes we need reminding.

Kagawa’s book uses the usual formula but creates something different from it. In this way the book will appeal to those looking for your standard paranormal young adult literature and also those specifically interested in faeries. It succeeds in being both a good read and a verdict on how we manage our creativity. And, like all good young adult literature, it does it without preaching.

I waited many months before picking up The Iron King, although I had seen it everywhere and been intrigued by the set-up. And although it wasn’t quite as fantasy-based as I’d expected, the reality of it made its mark. Very highly recommended to fans of fantasy, history, steam punk, social issues, domestic relations, angst, and romances. The crossover value of this book is extensive.

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