In a Russia where the Decembrists’ rebellion was successful and the Trans-Siberian railroad was completed before 1854, Sasha Trubetskaya wants nothing more than to have a decent debut ball in St. Petersburg. But her aunt’s feud with the emperor lands Sasha at university, where she becomes one of its first female students – an experiment, she suspects, designed more to prove female unsuitability for such pursuits than offer them education. The pressure intensifies when Sasha’s only friends – Chinese students – start disappearing, and she begins to realize that her new British companion, Jack, has bigger secrets than she can imagine! Sasha and Jack find themselves trying to stop a war brewing between the three empires. The only place they can turn to for help is the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace, newly founded by the Taiping rebels. Pursued by the terrifying Dame Florence Nightingale of the British Secret Service, Sasha and Jack escape across Siberia via train to China. Sasha discovers that Jack is not quite the person she thought he was…but then again, neither is she.
This is a book that wears its feminism on its sleeve, loud and proud. It waves its feminist flag. It goes “I’m feminist, and I’m not sorry.”
To say that that’s wonderfully refreshing would be an understatement of galactic proportions.
The usual disclaimer about steampunk applies: I’m not really interested in it. As for Russian history, it’s something I know nothing about, though I’m aware that this novel is alt-history–Dame Nightingale is now a spymistress, Constantine took the throne instead of Nicholas, and so on. Similarly, I have only the very most basic understanding of Russian culture and socio-political context. I will therefore not be commenting on them, since I’m ignorant and it’s not my place.
This is a hugely woman-centric narrative. It’s not just that the protagonist Sasha is a girl but that the narrative is built from the presence and significance of many women; it wouldn’t be amiss to say outright that the movers and shakers of this tale are all female. Even women who don’t have significant roles are never condemned for not participating in the plot or the war or the politics–it’s acknowledged that you can be strong in different ways, because women are people and people are individuals, not a monolith; it’s acknowledged that some women are not able to do certain things because they were never allowed to learn how. I can’t stress this enough, I really can’t. Patriarchal culture means that women are often in a bind of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t. We stand on a cusp, and tilting slightly one way or another will label us either “unfeminine” and therefore worthless, or “too feminine” and therefore also worthless. Different ways of worthless to be sure, but nevertheless. Worthless.
Sasha’s aunt Eugenia is the one who articulates much of this. Whereas Sasha’s mother Irina is a flighty “dark-haired, fragile beauty,” Eugenia is a no-nonsense woman who runs estates and doesn’t afraid of anything. This would usually be the point where most writers would privilege Eugenia’s abilities and viewpoint over that of Irina. It would be done without sympathy; the “girlier” woman would be made out to be a silly, simpering creature of no worth or use to anybody. Not here.
“I was lucky not to have competition from male heirs,” Eugenia parried. “But even then, if it weren’t for my father’s kindness and forethought, the Menshov lands would be in the hands of some cousins thrice removed.”
Aunt Eugenia drew closer, her bony finger in [the emperor's] face. “You better fix those laws so that I never see another deserving woman tossed out of her house and sent to live with her relatives,” she said.
“But my dear,” the empress said. “Most women are not equipped to run an estate. Why, just look at your own sister.”
A terrible smile spread across my aunt’s features; she no longer looked plain but petrifying, a Fury of old come to avenge the crimes committed against widows and orphans. “Please do not fault my sister for not knowing the things she was never taught,” she said, still addressing Constantine, “and I shall never fault your brother for not learning what he was taught.”
This is so important. And then she goes on to demand that the emperor opens the university to female students. Eugenia’s easily my favorite character in Heart of Iron.
The first half of the novel follows Sasha’s academic life, where she makes friends with the other girls (who are just as nervous as she is–there’s quite a bit of refreshing female friendship and commiseration here) and has to put up with sexist male students and professors. There’s some much-welcome discussion about westernness between Sasha and Chiang Tse, her Chinese friend, as well as some touching on racism directed at him and other Chinese students (though I very much wish his eyes hadn’t been described as “almond-shaped,” one of my most hated descriptions for East Asian features ever; fortunately, it occurs only twice throughout the text). Some reviewers complain that this is shoehorning in too much contemporary “PC” politics, but I say fuck ‘em.
While Sedia’s language is generally spare and light, on occasion there are images I found really quite striking.
I watched the black Neva waters grow at first a lattice and later a carapace of green ice, turning into a gigantic chrysalis suspended between the gray stone walls
There are also moments that made me go “wait, what” like–
Chiang Tse sighed wistfully, and for a moment I was entranced by the way his thick eyelashes cast a shadow over the steep curve of his cheekbone. When he looked up, his eyes reminded me of blackberries, dark and shiny in the eyelash thicket.
Wait, what? This isn’t the only time someone’s eyelashes cast shadows on their cheeks, either. Technically I suppose it’s plausible, but I don’t think eyelashes grow quite that long. The blackberry eyes are… unfortunate.
I enjoy how eminently sensible Sasha is. There are two men interested in her, Chiang Tse and Jack (as in Spring-Heeled Jack, yes), but she never loses her head over them, especially once she’s determined that she’s not overly interested in one of them. Once she starts to dress as a man, there are many sharply observed moments where she considers the effect of her disguise on others, even on Jack who knows that it’s only a disguise. Being perceived as a man brings both advantages and disadvantages, and here again Sedia astutely balances Sasha’s self-perception and introspection: there’s never any point where the narrative validates “being one of the boys” over being a woman, and though Sasha finds being a young hussar liberating in some ways, in others she misses wearing a dress and just being a girl. While it doesn’t delve into the Chinese perspective of things, a number of Chinese characters remind Sasha, sometimes quite snappishly: “you Europeans have an unfortunate tendency to assume the rest of the world exists to assist you and to help you.” Writing to her mother, Sasha muses, “I fear our contempt for our own Asiatic origin has blinded us to who our allies truly are. I wonder how the world would be reshaped if Russia allied itself not with the degeneracy and false superiority of European empires, but with the might of the Orient?”
The attempt to establish just such an alliance is the backbone of the book’s second half, where having discovered a British plot against Russia and China, Sasha embarks on a journey to China. Pacing problems begin cropping up around here and the narrative is taken over by the train ride; Sasha would encounter agents sent by the British crown, violence or fire would ensue, and then she finds help in the form of a pair of traveling Chinese traders and a group of hussars. It becomes so frequent that their rotmistr hangs a lampshade on it–
The rotmistr scratched the back of his head, and then opened in his arms in a gesture of wide wonderment. “Oh, young Poruchik Menshov. How I envy your gift of making friends, of finding what you need to find. Of course they may travel with you—we have space.”
–more than once:
I look at you and I wonder. I wonder at how you manage to slip away from those who are looking for you and how you continue—as unstoppable as an arrow—and the world turns to spread itself under your feet so that you may get to wherever it is you’re going.
While I don’t think she’s necessarily luckier than most protagonists, the lampshading only makes it more noticeable, not less. Sasha’s voice and intelligence keep the narrative engaging even throughout the more-flawed second half, but I do wish she’d met better fleshed-out people along the way rather than NPCs who happen to be in the right places at the right times to help her out.
The ending ties up as much as it can fairly neatly, and leaves us on a speculative note as to what the world might be like with the socio-political climate of a Chinese-Russian alliance against the British Empire in place of the history we know. Which is something I would surely love to read about on its own, even–or even preferably–without the adventure side of things. It’s still a book I can strongly recommend for its feminism and a fine protagonist, but I do wish the train ride had been a fair bit shorter and the coincidences fewer.