Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!
If we say we never judge a book by its cover, we'll sound like better people, sure, but we'll be total liars. I chose this book based on its beautiful cover, and that first snap judgment was enough to pick it up. I appreciated many of this novel's historical fantasy elements, the author's obvious dedication to historical detail, and the intriguing new set of powers that "hemopaths" bring to the fantasy pantheon.
Synopsis: It's 1919, and survivor's guilt is the new black. Rich, white, urban America is drinking and dancing itself into a frenzy, trying to forget the last few years of epidemics and war wounds. Boston doesn't believe in Prohibition, but something even odder has shown up - hemopaths. Those who carry the disease of the blood can create illusions with their art - a voice or an instrument can dupe everyone in the room into believing whatever the hemopath wants them to believe. Is your hat a rabbit? Are you dying in a hospital room, but thinking you're at a café in Paris? If so, thank a hemopath -- or, if you're not rich and jaded and looking for a thrill, run away. Being a hemopath isn't illegal, but plying their illusive trade is, and the Hemopath Protection Agency (HPA) has built asylums to give hemopaths a place to go and a safe way to live. Most people believe it's the best thing for them. Hemopaths have massive iron allergies - it makes them ache and enervates them - but buildings, cars, appliances and the whole modern world is bursting with the metals. However, young girls aren't made to live in an institution, which is, in part, why Ada Narvarra and Corinne Wells don't live at home anymore.
Corinne fears her family - wealthy and privileged - will find her affliction a way to get rid of her. Ada's Portuguese father was arrested by Bolshevik-fearing authorities and she fears having a daughter as a hemopath will make her Mozambican mother's situation worse. But at The Cast Iron, none of those realities intrude. The wealthy flock to see the hemopaths, believing them thrilling, but harmless. The club is made of brass and glass and wood, all safe materials, and hemopaths are on the bill nightly, and at The Cast Iron, the music never stops. Hemopaths also can't help spinning their fancies - a poem, a song, or even an instrument in their hands can put them in absolute power over anyone, and The Cast Iron makes it possible to drown in the spectacular illusions and the color and brightness -- and the club makes it possible for Ada and Corinne to shut out all about their lives that they don't want to hear - that the have no plans for the future, that Ada's African-Portuguese features will always be an impediment to a happy life in the city, and that Corrine's family is going to eventually find out -- and highly resent -- the lies she's forever telling them. The Cast Iron is a safety net which both girls can use to forget they're always one step ahead of the law, that Prohibition is coming, and once the Eighteenth Amendment passes, their haven will be closed against them. Until then, they do what their good friend, Johnny tells them to -- they run a few cons to make a little money, which gives him the means to grease palms and pay bribes to keep the cops off their backs. It's all about keeping everybody safe ... until it doesn't work anymore.
Observations: One of the strengths of this novel is that the young adult characters - Ada, Corinne, Saint & Gabriel - are not really "teens." The American concept of the teen years began after WWII, really, so it made perfect sense that in 1919, these people were basically young adults - jobs, drinking, smoking, beaux - all of this basically "gangster & flapper" behavior is normalized. Due to her wealth and family position, Corinne is in finishing school, but Ada isn't in school at all, because she doesn't have to be, and the life open to young ladies of color was pretty different at that time, though the novel makes very little mention of this. Another strength is in the novel's diversity. This is a club scene in 1919 - the patrons are rich and white, but the players are people of color, gay people, women and men. Ada's family is Portuguese and Mozambican; another character's family is Russian. I truly wished the author had actually delved into Ada's status as an immigrant in a time when American cities were flushed with people from other nations, and dealing with the uncertainty and hostility that came with that time. It seems like there was a lot of depth and richness available for setting and characterization that we weren't given time to sample.
While the author has a way with a turn of phrase, and this book has a lot of lyrical elements, I had a few questions about the book's settings, relationships and characterizations. Though generally enjoyable, with a praiseworthy focus on friendship and a lack of love triangles, I found the plot in some places muddled, gratuitously violent. Admittedly, I find this portion of American history, with its centering narrative of "Gatlings, Godfathers, godfellas, and gangstas" banal in the extreme, focusing, as it does, this time period the most often, and there was a LOT else going on across the country. Initially, I wanted to know when hemopaths had first appeared in the US, and how they were classified solely as diseased. I wanted to know their history and background in the States, and if there were hemopaths in other countries. There's a requisite mad scientist type in this novel, but it seemed to me that others must have been studying this effect, since laws had been passed. I thought knowing more of the politics of the time might have been interesting, but it seemed that radio and newspapers as vectors for information were limited - radios seemed not to have been invented yet, which is odd, as broadcast journalism was in its strong infant stages.
Iron Cast is owned by the charismatic Johnny Dervish who is, we're told, a vivid and compelling character, somehow demanding total loyalty from a pair of sixteen year old girls. Unfortunately, we never see why is he is beloved, or feared, though Ada's wariness to not cross him because she's been told never to do so at least makes sense - she has to walk a bit more lightly through the world than Corinne does. Corinne's overwhelming affection for him is harder to understand, as she seems to trust him for giving her a chance, even though he's a "norm" just like her family. She never gave them a chance to truly see her, however! I wish the novel had made the reader see Dervish as irresistible as well.
The narrative opens with a bang, then slows, which some readers may find hard to take after the opening "prison break" scene, which is seen as an part of an exciting con to Corinne, and rather harrowing to Ada. This told me a lot about the girls' personalities early on, and cemented my view of their friendship. Though this friendship is depicted as unbreakable and a central theme to the novel, I found that Corinne's privilege sometimes doesn't allow her to actually see Ada as anything but her sidekick or the object of her machinations. She doesn't see Ada's reality, and the limitations she has in their white-centric, immigrant-fearing, Bolshevik-hysterical world. This blindness, which comes of Corinne's privilege of being wealthy, white, and pretty causes her to act in brazen, pushy ways to get her own way.
I've said previously that Ada's Portuguese and Mozambican background is intriguing, but underutilized. I also wondered a great deal about her father, and the family's seemingly isolated stance in the US. They seem to be lacking in family or support, as her father languishes in jail. Ada also keeps her truest terrors of incarceration and abandonment from Corinne, and while I think most readers will want to be convinced of their friendship, I felt like there were some really hurtful things between them that Corinne had instituted that would prevent a true and deep relationship. I didn't see a reason for their tight friendship except that Ada had no one else. Corinne had myriad others from whom to choose - so, why Ada, especially because she was convinced she was the Negro laundress when they first met? Both girls have believable strengths and weaknesses, but I just wish we could have had more time to believe in them, for that friendship to gel and seem more true.
Conclusion: I must say again how gorgeous I find the cover; the beading around the neckline of Ada's dress is reminiscent of the leaded glass in a Tiffany lamp, doubly evoking the time period which Ada's giant afro does not. Though Ada's scene begins the book, this seems more of Corinne's story, so the choice to use Ada as cover image without Corinne is a bit odd to me, but I know many people picked this book up because there was a black girl on the cover, so... I guess well done book designers. Though engaging in many ways, this book is a bit uneven - so, so many positives, offset by so many things which confused me or bored me. Still, the world and the "powers" of hemopaths are intriguing and complex, I wanted more, and hope to see another novel written in this universe telling the history and genesis of these powers, where they came from, and how they could be used by people not overwhelmed by the shadow of the 1919 clubs-and-gangsters setting.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. After October 11 - that's today! - you can find IRON CAST by Destiny Soria at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!