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by Tina Connolly
Tor, $15.99, 336pp
Publication Date: September 23, 2014
The cover of 'Copperhead' claims only that it's a sequel to the Nebula Award finalist 'Ironskin' (click here for review), but the preview  of book three, 'Silverblind' (click here for review),  due in October, highlights that it's really a growing series. However, my impression here is that they're standalone companion novels set in a consistent world. I haven't read 'Ironskin' but that didn't seem to be a hardship while immersing myself in 'Copperhead'.

The first book is a retelling of 'Jane Eyre' in a fantasy world that's faux-Victorian but also populated by the fey and the dwarvven. The latter live and work with humans but the fey, responsible for much of the technology in the world, quit trading and started a war which ran long and bloody for four years. 'Ironskin' begins five years later and focuses on Jane Eliot, who takes the role of governess to Edward Rochart's daughter, the half-human/half-fey Dorie, and falls in love with him as he turns ugly women into beautiful ones.

'Copperhead' clearly follows 'Ironskin' because those transformed women are the Hundred, who are a key focus here. However, the timeframe isn't quite clear, as the text suggests that it takes place a year earlier. The Hundred are the women whom Rochart gifted with beauty, but through the implantation of bits of fey into their faces. This soon becomes dangerous, as it provides a means for the fey to take control. The lead is Jane's sister, Helen, one of the Hundred, who bears the scar in her arm that her sister inflicted to save her, driving an iron spike into it to stop the fey pushing her out of her own body. Because the fey can't bear iron, the Hundred now wear iron masks.

The title is taken from the name of a group of influential men, led by a Mr. Grimsby, whose aims are to initially finish off the fey, whose dangerous bits still drape the city. However, they soon become much more racist, aiming to rid the city not just of the fey but the dwarvven too. Many members of Copperhead are married to ladies who wear iron masks to protect their beauty, including Grimsby himself and Alistair Huntingdon, Helen's husband.

While Copperhead meets at Grimsby's house so that he can show off a new device that can destroy a fey, Jane is pursuing a goal of her own, upstairs with Grimsby's wife, Millicent. She aims to perform the opposite surgery to Rochart, removing her beautiful fey-infused face and replacing it with the original. However, when the device activates, something goes horribly wrong: Millicent is left in a fey sleep or, in other words, a coma, while Jane is gone. Grimsby now sees Jane as a murderess and vows to track her down with the same vigor he throws into his battle against the fey and the dwarvven.

And with Jane sidelined, we follow her sister Helen as she searches for her sister while taking on her fight. While 'Ironskin' was highly regarded, I've read criticisms about both the lack of action especially in its first half and a lack of interest in Jane's character. I can't comment on that book as I haven't read it yet, but while Jane is an important character in this sequel, she's not a deep one and hardly a vibrant one. She doesn't give the impression of being a particularly strong lead, but I'll reserve judgement until I pick up the first book.

What I can say is that neither criticism would be valid if aimed at Helen Huntingdon, who takes her sister's place as the lead of this book. She has a real story arc, being initially little more than the wife of an important man, the sister of the previous lead and, courtesy of her fey-infused face, a member of the Hundred. However, she has many talents that Jane doesn't, such as empathy and communication, and she finds a purpose in her sister's fight to remove the fey from the faces of the Hundred. That quest leads her into adventure and acute danger, but also into a discovery of who she has been and who she ought to be.

I appreciated Helen a lot as a character. She's strong and much more grounded than Jane, but still able to grow a great deal as she experiences more of the world than she ever would have done as a mere lady of society.

Much of this growth is framed in feminism, something that's inescapable in this book. I bought into this because it's entirely appropriate in a story set in what appears to a fictional England in a fictional Victorian era with entirely fictional characters. I was entirely behind the expansion of Helen's work down feminist lines, because once she starts doing things that are deemed improper for the fairer sex, she inevitably has to fight the attitude that deems it so.

What was a little less palatable was how this was hammered home. Almost all the characters are women, whether human or dwarvven, and many of them are worthy of note. However, the men, most of them villains, are generally seen as consistently worthless, whatever part they have to play, and only two of them have any real substance at all: one of them half-human/ half-dwarvven and the other a boy. A third might have had too if only he'd have turned up earlier on in the story. Even then, all are seen as lesser than most of the women on whatever scale you want to count. This could easily have remained a feminist story driven by strong female characters without emasculating all the male ones.

Helen also gets much to do throughout, as the genre switches up from secretive spy yarn to more overt action. This is far from a slow read and it escalates notably towards its finale; one of those scenes that reads wonderfully on the side of the women but horribly on the side of the men. A better action scene comes a little earlier with a sort of terrorist attack, because it's too busy to care about gender, even as most of its key players are female. A job merely needs to be done and those there take it on and make it so. It's a much more subtle feminist scene than the overkill of the finale.

If the overdone feminism, which could easily be read as sexism against men, is the biggest flaw, a smaller one comes in the use of words or phrases that don't fit the period setting. I was especially caught by a description of 'fey whisperer,' a phrase with meaning to us today but which feels out of place. Sure, 'horse whisperer' was first used in the early nineteenth century, but only as the nickname for one Irishman, never as a pop culture reference point. Connolly's prose is clean and engaging but she ought to watch out carefully for anomalies like this.

I'll pick up 'Ironskin' to flesh out the background to this book, but I'm far more interested in 'Silverblind,' due this month from Tor. It brings in a new lead in Dorie, a supporting player in 'Copperhead' and especially 'Ironskin,' now grown up and graduated from university but struggling against institutionalized sexism as she seeks real work. It would appear that the book will continue the trend of strong female characters in this series, but reverse the one of weak male ones that is so apparent here, all while fleshing out the world a little further and introducing some new fantastic elements. I'm eager to find out. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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