Ekaterina Sedia’s first novel, The Secret History Of Moscow, probes the dark, supernatural underbelly of the former Soviet Union. Her second, Alchemy Of Stone, is a sumptuous steampunk parable. In her fourth and latest, Heart Of Iron, she combines many of the elements she mined in those two books, but the result bears little resemblance to either. Instead, it relocates its alternate-reality Russia to the 19th century and stitches steampunk into its sprawling backdrop. For Sedia, one of speculative fiction’s most consistently and quietly evocative voices, Heart Of Iron is two steps backward—and a half dozen forward.
The book’s strength is in its voice. Narrated in the first person by Sasha Trubetskaya, a young university student born into a noble yet out-of-favor family, Heart Of Iron starts out as a lightweight yet intriguing navigation through the intricacies of social, political, and academic life following the triumphant Decembrist Revolt of 1825. That bit of alternate history never factors majorly into the plot, though—unless it’s meant to subtly explain the lack of revolutionary sentiment elsewhere in the book. But there’s unrest of other sorts: The dynamic between Russia, Great Britain, and China becomes precarious when the early advent of certain technologies—particularly airships, submarines, and transcontinental railroads—force the three nations to enter a web of espionage and covert alliances.
Those alliances take intimate form for Sasha. Two of her fellow students in St. Petersburg—the sweetly beguiling Chinese scholar Chiang Tse and the brooding, mysterious Englishman Jack Bartram—begin competing for her affections, though the love triangle doesn’t last long. Sasha is quickly caught up in the political machinations of three emerging empires, and soon she’s trekking across the continent toward Beijing, hiding her gender in the uniform of a gendarme, and with bookish visions of adventure dancing in her head. Reality hits her as hard as Siberian snow—but Sedia’s bright, supple tone makes Sasha an eminently sympathetic character, even as the would-be diplomat begins to get lost in the enormity of the situation.
The big picture gives Sedia some problems. Heart Of Iron tackles all kinds of massive ideas—gender politics, racism, imperialism, religion—but she never fully commits herself to exploring any of them, even as she offers passages of dialogue that beautifully illuminate the issues. Her deployment of steampunk is even less substantial. Apart from the appearance of the genre’s requisite airships, there’s little wonder in Sedia’s vision of anachronistic advancements. Granted, it’s refreshing that the book isn’t all gadgetry and gaslight—but it does make her few steampunk tropes, like the automaton pianist that appears briefly and for no apparent reason, feel tacked-on. And as an alternate history, Heart Of Iron also fails to wow, although Sedia does manage to delightfully repurpose Florence Nightingale and put a somewhat fresh spin on a certain English folk figure grossly overused by steampunk.
Sasha, though, pulls the story across the finish line with wit and grace. As her youthful spunk and resourcefulness are shouldered aside by pensiveness and the growing complexity of her mission, she pushes events toward a grim climax, then walks away with a hard-won perspective on trivialities like academic angst and adolescent crushes. And Sedia’s secondary characters sparkle—particularly Sasha's tough-as-nails Aunt Eugenia and the sly, philosophical military officer Rotmistr Ivankov. That said, Sasha is almost too large for Heart Of Iron to contain; she demands a more sweeping, epic plot, whereas this one borders on something better suited to a young-adult novel. That doesn’t greatly diminish the time Heart Of Iron spends with its protagonist, nor the way Sedia keeps her steampunk tastefully pruned. As gripping and charming as it is, though, Heart Of Iron could use a little more sprawl.