K.M. McKinley’s The Iron Ship is a sprawling, slow build of a story that mostly follows the POV exploits of five siblings whose stories generally wend their own way, though each intersects with the others in varying ways and to varying degrees. With its large cast, leisurely characterization, separate plots, unhurried approach to worldbuilding, and focus on an accretion of detail (admittedly, sometimes to a somewhat befuddling amount), I can’t say McKinley’s debut is particularly energetic or compelling. But it does suck you in even as it acts as mostly prelude to what is to come.
The setting is “Earth” (not our Earth, McKinley is at pains to tell us in her afterword), a world with two moons and a sister planet known as the Twin that may possibly be edging ever nearer as part of a millennia-long cycle. More precisely, the novel sets itself in The Hundred Kingdoms, a quasi-industrial society with trains, guns, and steam power sitting alongside and sometimes intertwined with magic, thanks to both “mageborn” — think your typical wizard-type — and “magisters” — think magic-engineers (at least, I believe that’s the distinction; more on this type of uncertainty later). Thus, it’s a world of magic moving quickly into an Industrial Age, with all the attendant tensions our own brought us: pollution, over-crowding, poor working conditions, social unrest, fear of change, etc.
Even as we’re presented with a world moving forward into the future, we’re also given a world with a sense of deep history, with at least two great civilizations long fallen (one character posits those falls are connected to the Twin’s orbital cycle), leaving behind a heavy influence and a legacy of magic and advanced technology in the form of various leavings that the Kingdoms plunder for their own advancement. This is, in fact, what drives the construction of the titular ship, whose goal is a newly-discovered ancient city that remains in pristine condition thanks to its location in the ice fields of the far south, a veritable treasure trove of older technology/sorcery. There’s also frequent reference to the fall of the gods, who were driven out by one of our character’s ancestors. Currently only two seemingly remain (one of whom hangs out telling tales in taverns). Finally, it’s also a world where the spirits of the newly dead are “guided” into the next life by appropriately named Guiders; otherwise they become dangerous ghosts.
It’s a diverse world, with all sorts of human types coming in all shades of skin colors. As well there is a race of non-humans known as Tyn, themselves quite diverse but generally able to be divided into “Lesser Tyn” (between 10 cm and a meter in height) and “Greater Tyn.” Tyn are able to wield magic, at least to some extent different than that of human magic, and at least some are forced into a near-slavery type of work in one of the kingdoms — Karsa, home to the five siblings of the well-known Kressind family (their father is a wealthy industrialist) that make up the core of the plot.
The siblings are as diverse as the general population of the novel. Rel is a rakish soldier whose commission was bought by their father and who ends up sent to the edge of the Kingdoms as a penalty for a sexual miscalculation. Garten is a cautious government bureaucrat. Trassan is a brilliant and bold engineer responsible for the idea and construction of the great ship the book is titled for. Aarin is a high-up Guider. Guis is a failed mageborn turned playwright who also struggles with the demons of depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. And their sister Katriona refuses to let her gender stand in the way of what her intelligence and competency should garner her (society’s, and her father’s, sexist views be damned).
One plotline of The Iron Ship deals with Trassan’s construction of his ship and his race against another to get to the fabled ancient city. Another focuses on Rel’s tenure at the Gates of the World, which stand guard at the edge of a desert where dangerous creatures lurk (it gives nothing away to say the creatures are about to stop lurking). Katriona’s story follows her marriage to the son of another industrialist and her attempt to insert herself more fully into the workings of their company and her concurrent entanglement with the Tyn who work for the company. Guis’ plot is, along with Katriona’s, the most personal, as it mostly details his day to day struggle with the mental issues that plague him, which thanks to his mageborn ability threaten to have the force of reality (mageborn can bend reality by their Will). His fear of his own power has its reasons; he is the cause of Aarin losing his eye when both were younger thanks to an unguarded release of power. Aarin, meanwhile, thanks to his own power and his connection to the dead, who have become more and more recalcitrant, has sensed for some time that things are changing in the world, and not for the better. At the behest of his old teacher, he agrees to journey partway on Tressan’s voyage of discovery, getting off at an old monastery of the Guiders’ Order, where he’ll learn more about what he senses. Garten has the least amount of page time and really is mostly lost in the scramble of plot.
Finally, a few other major characters/plots are thrown into the mix. One involves the Countess Lucinia, a strong-willed, brilliant thinker who, like Katriona, feels trapped in her gender (thus her more popular name — The Hag of Mogawn), and her seneschal Mansanio (in unrequited love with her). Lucinia is the one who theorizes the Twin’s cycle might have caused the fall of the earlier civilizations and that another such event is soon due. The other major character is a young boy named Tuvacs who is plucked out of jail by an entrepreneur to become an indentured worker for him up near the Gates.
As you can see, “sprawling” is indeed the appropriate term. And despite The Iron Ship’s nearly 400-page length, several of these plots are barely begun. Rel doesn’t enter the ominous desert until nearly two-thirds of the book is over and even then, the larger threat doesn’t manifest itself until more than three-quarters of the way through. The launch of the title ship, meanwhile, doesn’t take place until 90 percent of the way through, meaning Aarin obviously doesn’t get dropped off on the beginning of his own quest until even later. Katriona and Guis’ stories are more fully developed, with Guis’ mostly a gradual revelation of character and Katriona’s developing on both a characterization and plot level.
Those looking for a lot of action, or for major plot resolution, therefore are going to want to look elsewhere. If you’re willing to be patient, however, the slow burn of McKinley’s story can be quite effective, thanks in part to her focus on creating (for the most part) detailed, three-dimensional characters as well as fully dimensional interrelations amongst those characters, particularly with regard to family dynamics, which feel wholly real. Each character has their own sharply delineated voice, not simply in their internal monologue but in their dialogue, their responses, and their thinking, as when for instance Trassan, considering his brow-beaten uncle, says it is, “as if his wife’s cruelty had flattened the spirit out of him in the same manner as a roller flattens steel in a mill, mercilessly and automatically.” That’s the analogy of an engineer, and thus exactly the kind of comparison one would expect from Trassan, a comparison that would seem out of place in the mind of Aarin or Guis.
Another reason The Iron Ship holds attention despite the slow pace is the range of conflict McKinley offers up: political, bureaucratic (Trassan must struggle to get a license for his journey), social (the plight of workers, the near-slavery conditions of the Tyn), environmental, gender (the frustrations of Katriona and the Countess were particularly searing), class, racial, familial (let’s just say parents don’t come off so well generally), and mental/emotional (Guis’ struggle was terrifyingly effective as an expression of depression/compulsion, especially in the world of fantasy where metaphor can so often become reality). Even magic is a source of conflict, with tension between mageborn and magisters, though this is barely hinted at. And over all of this lies the conflict that threatens the Kingdom’s existence (creatures from the desert) and that which possibly threatens the world (the Twin’s approach).
The diversity of character and conflict is mirrored in the richness of the world itself, with its multiplicity of humans, Tyn, and other creatures; its mix of technology and magic, itself subdivided into different forms — mageborn, magisters, witches, Guiders, Tyn magic, ancient magic; its sense of deep history with intriguing references to those two ancient civilizations and, even more fascinating, the asides regarding the gods being driven out of the world. I will admit to some frustration throughout, but especially at the start, at how much was being thrown at me without any real concrete, definite sense of how it all worked or even what it all meant. How, for instance, I wondered is the tiny creature nesting in Guis’ hair a “Tyn” while the tall workers at Katriona’s factory are also “Tyn?” What does a mageborn do different from a magister different from a witch? Just as with the plots, and with the setting shifts (A floating castle! An Island of the Dead! A Fortress Made of Glass Built for Giants!), if you can be patient, some of these questions will be answered, but mostly I just found that I enjoyed the sweep of the background without worrying overmuch about its details, at least just yet. If book two offers more of the same, I’ll have a more pointed complaint, but right now I’m satisfied with how McKinley just lets it all fly at you.
Stylistically, the prose is smooth and precise, sharp and vivid in its presentation of detail (at times, I wondered at the balance of detail — why tell me so much about this building’s construction and look and so little about the magisters, for instance), and the actions scenes, when they come at the end, are handled deftly, a good mix of vibrant activity and tension. And there’s an absolutely brilliantly imagined scene once the ship sets out, when it meets a long-referenced danger — “The Drowned King.” The imagery in this scene is both fantastical and fantastic, and I’d love to quote it, but I just don’t want to spoil the moment for potential readers.
There’s no doubt The Iron Ship is a meandering, slow-moving tale with a tidally slow build up. It does however have a goal in sight; it meanders, but always toward an end, as opposed to being a random scattering of events. But if it has a goal, or a plot, this first book in the GATES OF THE WORLD series is mainly one big prologue. By the end of its almost 400 pages, we’ve registered for the race, attached our number to our shirt, limbered up, and run those first few warming up the blood steps. Book two (I assume) is where we’ll really hit our stride. If you look at The Iron Ship that way, and let it all wash over you as you immerse yourself in its rich construction, I think you’ll find it well worth the time.