The Iron Ship is a startling debut. It’s full of nuanced characters and complex relationship dynamics, in a world which is made entirely believable through some very effective prose The story draws on this set of complex characters and believable world to create a very compelling narrative. I went in not knowing what to expect, and have to admit that I was absolutely blown away.
Starting from the top, then, the world. This is a previously Tolkien-esque world, filled with magic, disturbing supernatural creatures, fallen empires, gods, hereditary nobility, the living dead – all the trappings one might expect f an epic fantasy. But it’s also a world on the cusp of industrialisation. New money is shattering the old elites. Some of the more human-esque creatures operate in society as semi-indentured labour. Gods are cast down and, at least in some cases, forgotten. The living dead are occasionally used as manpower. It’s a world in the liminal space between the old world and the new.
This does lead to a bit of culture shock for the reader, as they are relentlessly moved between locations, each more fantastical than the last, and introduced to a sprawling cast of characters. The world is speckled with marvellously bizarre creations – a castle built on stone that floats, situated in the middle of the sea. A fort perched on the edge of a defile, made entirely of armoured glass. A ragged necropolis used for the rites of summoning the unquiet dead. The descriptions are baroque, filled with incidental detail, building an entirely believable milieu for the reader. Everything feels like a blend of high fantasy and the Victorian era, but that’s underselling it – McKinley has created a genuinely special setting here.
Alongside the setting are the characters. The narrative largely centres around five sibling members of the same family, as each fills their own social role. There’s a lot of introductory detail here. Each sibling gets their own viewpoint, and each feels like they have a unique voice – the tormented playwright, the sister driven to become an industrialist, the disgraced military officer, all feel distinct from each other, each with their own agenda, their own needs. McKinley does however also introduce a common strand to their characters – each stands beside the others as family. There’s an unflinching examination of family dynamics, of the small cruelties and blazing arguments that tear families apart or bring them together, and it’s done with a keen eye for how a large family works.
Alongside this main character set are a whole pool of supporting cast members. Again, the reader is rather barraged with names and descriptions, but as the story continues, and the characters begin to fill their roles, it becomes easier to keep a handle on who’s who. McKinley really has created a vast world here, populated by individuals who, even mentioned in passing, feel like people (if not humans, per se).
The plot is scattered across all the different locations brought up in the setting; the typical focus on each of the sibling characters means that the reader has some focus, some desire to see characters succeed or fail. They’re opposed, at various points, by petty villains, institutional bureaucracy, sabotage, angry gods, and downright creepy supernatural occurrences. Whilst the plot is interesting enough, it really feels like this book is building up toward a denoument in other books of the series.
As a whole, it feels like an interesting, and at times even compulsive narrative, but it is slowly paced, perhaps deliberately slow, and occasionally loses momentum. On the other hand, when firing on all cylinders, the struggle to, for example, build and launch the iron ship of the title makes for extremely compulsive reading. There’s a lot of politics and discussion heavy plot if you enjoy that sort of thing, and a fair few bloody and often deeply strange battle scenes if those are your preference. The plot feels like it’s going somewhere, but I don’t think we’re there yet. That said, the reader is effectively immersed in the world over the course of this book, and it makes for fascinating reading.