[Please note: I received an Advanced Reading Copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange only for an honest and thorough review. This is (to the best of my ability) a spoiler-free review.]
I’ve been craving a lot of things in the young adult literature I’ve been reading lately, and not a whole lot had been sufficiently or 100 percent fulfilling exactly what I wanted.
And then I started Destiny Soria’s Iron Cast, and my ideal YA book checklist started getting completed faster than a bingo board in eighth grade science class.
More than one primary female character?
More than one primary person of color?
Interesting and new fantasy concepts?
Female friendship so tight I’m jealous?
Romance that doesn’t overwhelm the actual plot?
Snark to end all snark and badassery in abundance?
Check and check.
The power of words and music and a dramatic quotation of Carrol’s “Jabberwocky?”
Soria’s Iron Cast is a wild, gangster-esque ride through 1919 Boston just prior to the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Prohibition is coming to threaten our main characters’ livelihoods — but so does the very nature of their blood. Ada and Corinne and all of their associates are what are known as hemopaths, a part of the population that has developed the power to use art — music, painting, acting, and literature — to create spectacular illusions and control non-hemopaths. Their protector and boss Johnny Dervish owns and runs the illegal hemopath night club, the Cast Iron, where Ada and Corinne perform at night and for which they earn money during the day by conning the general population. For this same reason, hemopaths are distrusted and rounded up like criminals and lunatics at the Haversham Asylum for Afflictions of the Blood. The law is closing in on Ada, Corinne, and their crew, and betrayal and danger await them at every turn as their world becomes more and more precarious.
This book rarely gives you time to slow down. From opening chapter to the final chapter, Iron Cast keeps you hooked whether the scene is an asylum break-out scene or a quiet moment with Ada’s mother. The pace is consistently quick, energetic, and charged. The threat of something bad happening to the main characters or their friends and family is always just hovering at the horizon. Until the final chapters, the balance between quiet scenes and action-packed scenes is maintained throughout.
I thought that the concept of hemopaths was not only fascinating and refreshing, but it was equally well-executed. We learn about the nature of hemopathy not in a fact dump, but gradually as the plot continues, and its theories and practices are elucidated as the two main characters — actual hemopaths — see fit. The hemopaths’ powers stem from their art: songsmiths like Ada can effect emotions, trust, and memories from their music on whatever instrument of their choice; wordsmiths like Corinne can create powerful, even addictive allusions with their choice of literary recitation; artists can pull artifacts and tools from their paintings; and thespians can change their appearance to impersonate anyone of their choice. But this is more than a fantasy element in the book; it also has a sociopolitical layer in the plot. Many scenes involve Corinne interacting with non-hemopath characters who are generally prejudiced against or confused by the phenomenon, and she must educate and pacify them as she can. The city of Boston has gradually been turning against hemopaths, and recent laws require these members of the population to “register” as having the “affliction,” as non-hemopaths refer to their abilities. At the end of Iron Cast, we learn that the popular opposition to hemopath citizens has taken on a violence akin to racial prejudice; the treatment of “patients” at Haversham Asylum recalls the violence and disdain for individual human life of the Holocaust and racism in the United States. Soria does an incredible job of not just telling us the nature of hemopathy: every page of the book shows us the everyday experiences, predicaments, and dangers of being a hemopath.
Similarly, the cast is relatively diverse for a young adult novel and the experiences of its hemopath minority characters map onto contemporary minority groups in a way that informs us better of their struggles and day-to-day lives. Ada is biracial and first-generation American: her mother is Swahili and her father is Portuguese. Their union has been openly deemed “unnatural.” Ada must contend with contempt of her hair and her skin as well as the legal and economic struggles of lower class immigrants at the same time that she must hide her illegal hemopath talents. Two other male characters must hide their homosexual relationship behind a heteronormative marriage between two secret but ambitious hemopaths. I’m still waiting for a book that has a Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows-esque level of diversity, but, slowly but surely, we’re getting there!
The strongest aspect of Soria’s young adult fantasy debut has to be the pure, unbreakable friendship between her two badass ladies, Ada and Corinne. Both girls are capable of taking a grown man out, but they are equally competent at passive-aggressive strategy to stop the keenest mob boss or politician in their tracks. They are each their own person as well: Corinne is disorganized, aggressive, and loyal to a fault, while Ada is sweet, quietly calculating, and careful. Ada recognizes she must balance out Corinne’s extreme need for immediate action, while Corinne knows the best ways to get Ada thinking and ticking. Most importantly, these two girls’ relationship is the star of the show in Iron Cast. Granted, there is romance — one girl is going steady while the other must contend with an unexpectedly impossible wildcard of a boy —, but neither girl lets that overshadow or supersede their friendship. Their bond proves stronger than the law, than betrayal, even than hemopathic power, and its beautiful in every way.
While I do still have many questions concerning the book’s world building — for instance, what is it the social and cultural implications of hemopathy elsewhere? Is it limited to Boston, the east coast, the United States? How are other cities, states, and countries responding to the phenomenon? — my only other criticism of the text was its ultimate long-winded denouement and conclusion. Within the last several chapters, it felt as if there were two endings: one in the warehouse, one in the Cast Iron (I won’t say more because #spoilers). Both events involve almost the exact same confrontation and are bookended by almost the exact same romantic spat. Was the drawing out of the conclusion necessary? What does the final scene bring to the text that the prior, very similar scene doesn’t? I honestly thought I had gotten to the end of the book, and then it unexpectedly continued for one or two more chapters that somewhat flouted and devalued the events, decisions, and closure of the previous confrontation.
Prepare to enter a world in which music and literature, creativity and cunning are powerful and even dangerous. Prejudice, betrayal, and danger run rampant in this version of pre-1920s Boston, but none of these are a problem for the likes of Ada, Corinne, their growing powers, and their stunning friendship. In The Iron Cast, anything becomes possible with the support of friends, some snarky badass comebacks, and a belief in your own wild power.
Destiny Soria’s The Iron Cast will be released October 11, 2016 with Amulet books.