A Re-Imagining of Jane Eyre—With Faeries

Editor’s note: Joel is reading his way through the finalists for the 2012 Nebula Award for best sci-fi/fantasy novel. Read his introduction here.

Reimaginings of classics can be risky. Stick too close to the original and your story feels tired, or suffers from comparison to a beloved book. Stray too far, and you risk the ire of the source material’s biggest fans (who are, after all, probably your most likely audience). Few books have been reimagined, reinterpreted and generally riffed on as often as Charlotte Bronte’s enduring Jane Eyre, but Tina Connolly manages to find an entirely new angle with her debut novel, Ironskin.

Oh, it has all the trappings of the original: Jane Eyre Eliot is a young governess, come to a spooky mansion on the moors to teach a troublesome child, operating under the stern eye of the mysterious master of the house, Edward Rochart. As in Jane Eyre, the child is mixed-race, but not in the 1850’s scandalous-affair-with-the-natives sense; she’s actually half fey. This version of the story takes place in an alternate England that has recently survived a vaguely-defined war with faeries (think less “Tinkerbell” and more “clouds of sentient blue fog that can inhabit and control human corpses”). Jane herself was a casualty in the conflict, which left her face scarred by a fey curse that causes her to feel and project waves of terrible rage. She keeps the affliction at bay with an iron mask, which probably explains that title.

Roughly the first half of Ironskin sketches this world and its history in detail, and it is fascinating. Connolly weaves in elements of the backstory gradually, without resorting to turgid infodumps. Wonderful details abound, including descriptions of fey-influenced technology; in this version of our world, fey energy is used instead of fossil fuels, resulting in an entirely different set of steampunkish gadgets. Evocative prose creates an almost tactile atmosphere that I loved spending time in.

Unfortunately, the story and characters aren’t quite as fresh as the environment. Jane and Edward never feel like much more than watered-down versions of their Jane Eyre counterparts, especially once they get started on that whole “tortured romance” thing. Rochart’s dark seekrits might be a little different than Rochester’s—okay, way different—but the results play out similarly. The tears and fiery tragedies carry less emotional weight in the service of an odd plot about beauty-obsessed socialites that derails the second half of the novel. Still, the strong writing and rapid pacing keep you engaged, provided you don’t stop to ask the important questions, like why Jane is in love with Edward when she only interacts with him for about four pages.

It is, perhaps, unfair to compare the book too closely with a novel that is an indisputable part of the canon, so I won’t pick on Connolly too much. No, she hasn’t written one for the ages, but Ironskin is a very interesting addition to today’s glut of faerie-filled urban fantasies (every time you say “I do believe in faeries!” someone gets a book contract for a trilogy about a smouldering fey prince and the plucky American tourist who falls for him). I am interested to see how she expands upon the story in the forthcoming sequel, Copperhead, out this fall.

Why was it nominated? I think Ironskin impressed voters on a few counts, including the quality of the prose, the originality of the world-building, and the gutsiness of the premise. So many reinterpretations of classics have gotten bogged down being overly faithful to the source material, but Connolly shows a willingness to take risks, and she has been rewarded for it.

Does it have a shot at the Nebula? I say no. Think of this one as the young ingenue of the nominees—the Keshia Castle-Hughes, the Quvenzhané Wallis; a show of impressive talent by a young star (this is Tina Connolly’s debut novel) that doesn’t really stand much of a chance against more established stars. Then again, Anna Paquin won an Oscar at age 11, so you never know.