With the exception of Lavie Tidhar, I have thus far only read steampunk novels from countries which were at one time or another part of the British Empire, most are still part of the Commonwealth. So, I was rather interested in Hearts of Iron, since Ekatarina Sedia is from what used to be the Russian Empire. The Russian Empire under the Czars also forms the backdrop of the story.
Heart of Iron is a very different reading experience to any of the other steampunk novels I have read so far. For one, it is far less fantastic, it is rather low-tech steampunk. The protagonists are with one notable exception are all regular people, all accidental heroes.
The central character and narrator, Alexandra “Sasha” Trubetskaya, is a young girl of minor noble background forced to fight several personal wars. First, due to intervention by her aunt, she is admitted to university, as a member of the first group of women ever to study at a Russian university. She has to battle the sexism, chauvinism and elitism of her male fellow students and professors and the stance of some of some of the other girls who would rather get married than study.
Ekatarina Sedia describes Sasha’s situation as a matter of fact. There is no feminist message there, just the harsh reality of a male dominated society. It makes you cringe and angry, but this is how it was and sometimes still is.
The characterisation of the Russian males is also simply accurate, they are so certain of their superiority as males and Europeans, it hurts. Yet, if you know your history, you know this was the mindset of the white male at the time. Male and white superiority was a law of nature.
Again, Ms Sedia states facts, no moral message, but none is needed. The facts speak loudly.
In contrast to this white male racism and chauvinism stand the Chinese students ath St. Petersburg University. Hard-working, gentle, civilised and prevailing despite harassment by Russian students, professors and the Russian secret police. They form a stark contrast to Russian society, yet, they are not used as a mirror, the Chinese have their own troubles, they are far from perfect.
Through her contact and friendship with the Chinese, Sasha is dragged into a series of events which lead to an adventure and an epic mission she had never imagined possible. She makes some very interesting friends, among them the one truly fantastic character of the novel (no, I will not spoil anything), a well known English gentlewoman in a thoroughly different role, several Chinese fur traders with a more aces up their sleeves than one would expect and some very friendly and remarkably philosophical Russian hussars.
But Sasha’s main enemy remains the time she lives in. She is a young girl setting out to save two empires at a time when young girls are supposed to get married. She has to hide, she has to pretend. She faces the constant threat of discovery and disgrace, yet she prevails, she grows with her tasks.
Ekaterina Sedia has created a wonderful tale of a normal girl going on an epic adventure in a believable, highly realistic alternate version of mid-19th century Russia. There are some steampunk elements, notably airships, which are crucial to the story, and submarines but Hearts of Iron is not about technology, it is about the heroine’s journey.
Ekatarina Seida has also avoided a lot of the tropes common in steampunk novels. Neither English nor Americans are central or the true heroes. Instead, she offers a wonderful view on a completely different part of the world and the picture she shows is realistic, enthralling and beautiful.
If your ideas about 19th century Russia and China hail from TV series and films made for western audiences, you will be in for a few surprises. If you know what really happened, it will add to your enjoyment.
Although Heart of Iron is completely different to Lavie Tidhar’s Camera Obscura, it ranks right up there at the top with it.
Heart of Iron gets the full reinforced squadron:
Ten out of ten Zeppelins!