The Iron Witch by Karen Mahoney 2011
Corgi Books/Random House Children's Books
IQ "Sometimes the longer you left something without telling people, the harder it got to open your mouth and start filing them in on what they'd missed." Donna pg. 181
Donna Underwood is the daughter of two very powerful alchemists. She is also a freak, because she wears gloves all the time but has super strength, displayed in a moment at school that she regrets. She has iron tattoos that cover her hands and arms, they are beautifully bizarre so she covers them with gloves. Donna hides everything about her life with the alchemists, not even her best friend Navin Sharma knows about her tattoos (not to mention how she got them). But Donna isn't going to be able to hide all her secrets much longer, not when the mysterious (and handsome) Alexander (Xan) Grayson keeps popping into her life and he seems to understand her, even though she barely knows him. She can't keep hiding secrets from Navin either especially when the dark exiles of Faerie are beginning to appear and they want something that Donna isn't even sure exists and they won't hesitate to hurt her loved ones to get what they want.
I think what was lacking for me the most in this book was character development in the secondary characters. Navin has personality, funny, caring, loyal, vulnerable. He knows Donna has secrets but he doesn't push. Navin is a character that everyone will root for and I really liked his relationship with Donna. It's nice to have a guy who is the best friend, like a brother, not a romantic interest. Donna and Alexander Grayson on the other hand, didn't really leap off the page. The only thing Xan has going for him is that he's mysterious and nice, willing to help Donna even though he barely knows her. I'm looking forward to learning more about him and I like that he encourages Donna to be more positive and confident in herself, but I have ambivalent feelings about him. I like Donna, at times she is a typical teen, feeling down, prone to self pity, scared of the elves. She's someone I could relate to because of the feelings and at the same time I admired her loyalty to Navin and her bravery. She's usually scared but she thinks quick on her feet and she does what she has to do to protect her loved ones. I wanted her to succeed but that was about it. The secondary characters were rather bland, Aunt Paige, Maker, Quentin and Simon never really materialized as characters, I only grasped bits of their personality through Donna and Navin talking about them, I would have liked to have learned more about the secondary characters through their actions and interactions with Donna.
Before I get to the more obvious favorite parts of the book (the alchemy!), I loved the very subtle bits in the book that showed diversity and the fact that yes this book is set in the 21st century. Donna's best friend Navin is a major character who happens to be Indian American, he's a universal character, his heritage does not define him. Quentin is head of the Order of the Dragon of which Donna's parents are members. He also happens to be gay. The author never explicitly states that but Donna mentions Quentin's partner Simon, who lives with Quentin. Of course the alchemy knowledge is fantastic. It's never dumped all over the reader, instead pieces of alchemy history and terms appear through dialogue, Donna knows very little about the Order, the adults keep everything a secret. Thus the reader is able to learn with Donna without it growing tiresome or becoming an infodump session. The book has clearly been well researched and it is also clear that the author tried to find creative ways of sharing the information and creating her own twists on the subject. In addition there are fun bits about Faerie and I found it very interesting to read about dark elves. I don't read much paranormal so my only contact with elves are the Santa Claus kind. So I had a great deal of fun reading about dark wood elves.
The Iron Witch is a fast-moving story with a genuine teenage main character, not unrealistically heroic, but not utterly selfish. Donna is independent and I love that she and Xan equally save each other. I love that she has a mostly normal relationship with her best friend Navin and that she worries constantly about telling him her secrets versus not telling him. The author didn't have to make this story diverse. She could have easily made all the couples straight, not mentioned Donna's fashion (it may seem random to mention but I liked that Donna wasn't outlandishly quirky or a dull conservative dresser. Her gloves are described in detail and I found it intriguing/sad that she took such care in choosing pretty gloves to cover scars she considers ugly) and made all the characters white (or not mentioned the race) but the fact that a conscious effort was made to reflect the real world is something I highly applaud. The premise of the book is highly unique, faeries (ok I admit I don't know the difference between fairies, faeries and fey but I'll learn) combined with alchemists (c'mon how much fun is it to read about the elixir of life?) set in the 21st century. Authentic main characters, quick and intriguing plot, all that's needed is more development with Xan and the secondary characters. I am eager to see where this story goes next and while this could be a stand-alone novel, there's plenty of extra material available to use and I feel as though it's cliffhanger-ish.
Disclosure: Received for review from the author, thank you :D And yes we are friends
PS And ok the UK version of this book is MARVELOUS. Gold trim on the pages, gold curlicues on the cover, a delicate vial (I was pleasantly surprised that its description in the book matches what's on the cover) and the lovely iron tattoos. I'm not sure how the cover of the sequel will be able to match this one, but I look forward to seeing it revealed :)