Ekaterina Sedia’s Heart of Iron is the latest from a novelist who embraces genre–in this case both steampunk and alternate history–but brings a full-on literary sensibility to them. This, her fifth novel, posits a Russia where the 1825 Decembrist revolution succeeded (read about that history here) and the new emperor sets about modernizing Russia with a vengeance. But people will be people, no matter what machines they use.
Sasha, the protagonist, at first wants nothing more than to successfully debut at court. But driven by her strong-willed aunt, she enrolls as one of the first female students in St. Petersburg University, where she meets both Chiang Tse, a sensitive Chinese student, and Jack Bartram, a British subject better known to history as Spring-Heeled Jack. When foreigners of every stripe fall under suspicion and begin to disappear, Sasha investigates. Soon she and Jack must arrange an international alliance to forestall a possible world war.
This may sound like drawing-room docudrama, with the fate of nations decided in smoky rooms over tables laden with maps, but that’s a misconception. This is a chase novel. Sasha and Jack are trying to get somewhere, and the villains–led by an alternative Florence Nightengale, wonderfully reimagined as the kind of upper-class screeching harpy only the British produce–are after them. There are fights, explosions, even martial arts (all worked legitimately into the narrative), and of course that classic steampunk trope, airships.
There’s also a very deep and fundamental sense of the human cost of these events. Sedia doesn’t just drily extrapolate, she brings to life both the pros and cons of her concept, showing us that even turning an historical failure into a success wouldn’t necessarily make things better. And she makes Sasha a resourceful, strong-willed heroine whose voice gives us perspective on both the world around her and her own emotional life with the same cool honesty.