Heart of Iron
by Ekaterina Sedia
2011 • 320 pages • Prime Books
I talk a lot about narrative structure in speculative fiction. Not that it’s not a problem in other genres, but who knew that Britain’s postwar paper shortage would give us so many speculative fiction series that didn’t need to be series? But a separate, although related, problem is narrative heft. In my readings, I have come across many, many stories that either try to stretch out a thin story farther than it can go or, less frequently but more frustrating, attempt to cram too much story into too little words.
I find the latter more frustrating because the fix is simple. In fact, the fix is simple in both cases, but there’s only one where you actually get to indulge yourself. If you have so much story, tell it—don’t compress it.
Ekaterina Sedia’s Heart of Iron is one such novel, stuffing ten pounds of story into five pounds of prose. It’s an alternate history novel set in a Russia where the Decembrist revolt succeeded, although the results don’t matter too much to Sasha Trubetskaya, a young woman making her debut under the careful eye of her glorious harridan of an aunt, the formidable Eugenia. That is, until Eugenia’s efforts to badger the emperor into allowing women into Russia’s schools of higher education succeed and Sasha is admitted to a university. Initially hesitant about the idea, Sasha soon embraces it and her fellow outsiders at the university—the other female students and the Chinese students. Her friendship with Chiang Tse brings her right into the middle of international intrigue concerning wars and airships, and Sasha, ever her aunt’s dutiful niece, takes it upon herself to arrange international affairs during a break from school with the help of a mysterious British student who may or may not have superpowers.
That’s already quite a lot of plot for three hundred and twenty pages in paperback. And none of it is just set dressing. Sedia does not skimp out on the ramifications of what she’s talking about. She touches on feminism, East/West relations, Russia’s identification with Europe and the West despite its place and history in the East, England’s exploitative history with China, faith, gender, family, philosophy, the military, and Florence Nightingale.
But that’s the problem: she only touches on them. Reading Heart of Iron is a uniquely frustrating experience, because I just want more. I want to see Sasha actually deal with the fact that she has to impersonate a young man to complete her mission. I want to know more about Russia’s history of identifying with the West. I want to see the actually interesting love triangle Sedia has cooked up—the British student, Jack, is in love with Sasha, who is in love with Chiang Tse (who is not in love with the Brit, so perhaps it’s not a triangle after all). I want to know more about the politicial intrigue of Sasha’s world, because it’s not like ours and that, surely, is the point of writing alternate history in the first place. But there’s simply not room for all of it.
Which means that the pacing is appalling. It’s breakneck, compressing important events into mere paragraphs and blunting their impact. And it feels particularly choppier because this is a novel largely about political intrigue: the details are incredibly important. They shouldn’t be mumbled.
Still, some concepts are so beautiful that they still rise to the top. Sasha’s aunt Eugenia is a progressive woman who raises her niece with her sister to be a forward-thinking and self-sufficient young woman, although Sasha remains more imaginative and empathetic than Eugenia. Eugenia’s love for Sasha is never doubted, and Sasha believes in Eugenia’s abilities the same way you might believe in gravity. And late in her travels, she encounters Rotmistr Ivankov, a military officer who sees right through her disguise but nevertheless extends her a warm hand of greeting, support, and a taste of his unorthodox philosophy. Said philosophy, centered around the idea that people earn their souls through their experiences, is so beautifully crafted that it loops ahead and becomes frustrating again: if only everything in this novel was as fleshed out as that beautiful piece of writing.
Ultimately, Heart of Iron comes off as a cross between an outline and a first draft by a very gifted writer. Sedia obviously has immense talent and insight into Russia; I just wish it was on better display than here.
I rented this book from the public library.