This has been on my TBR since it came out last year, because I LOVE the story of Anastasia. My favorite movie growing up was the animated Anastasia (who can resist that little bat sidekick, Bartok?!). But seriously, the story has always fascinated me and even though it’s long been proven that Anastasia died at the same time as the rest of her family, the mystery and excitement of the potential in that “lost princess” idea captivates me. Maybe that (and again the cute animal sidekicks like Maximus and Pasqual) is why Tangled is my favorite Disney movie too. Anyways, I love that story, I love a good retelling, and I apparently have a particular soft spot for YA sci-fi and fantasy retellings (I really enjoyed Brightly Burning a few years ago), so I knew I wanted to read this one.
Heart of Iron Duology by Ashley Poston
Ana doesn’t remember the horrific fire that left her with scars all over her face. All she remembers is herself and her best friend, a sentient android named D09, being rescued from space by the outlaw crew aboard the Dossier. Since then, the crew has been her family. But D09 has been glitching lately, and Ana’s attempts to discover how to fix him lead to more discoveries (and trouble) than she could have imagined, including a new “friend” in a spoiled Ironblood royal, some terrifying new enemies that are looking to finish the job that was started in that fire years ago, and some truly difficult choices that will change her life forever.
“Because I will follow you anywhere… To the ends of the galaxy, if I have to. I want to exist where you exist, and that is enough.”
Wow – first of all, this story was nonstop. The pacing was superb from beginning to end and I felt like I was in a page-turning, edge of my seat race to finish as soon as possible, to find out what happens. The writing itself felt overall smooth, which contributed the fantastically fast pace of the novel, and the dialogue was easy and real. I also loved the language of this sci-fi based world; the “iron and stars” beliefs and oaths and general mythology was fascinating and incorporated really efficiently. I fell right into it and I love when that happens. The characters are generally pretty average, past the main few. The outlaw crew trope is nothing new, but it is one that I love (Firefly and Wayfarers anyone?), so I enjoyed them. Similarly, Ana as the brave and plucky heroine and Robb as the errant high-class boy needing a purpose/morals are common tropes. But I really liked that they were thrown on their heads a bit in the romance department – Ana being firmly committed to D09 and Robb following an interest (that just might, definitely, inconveniently?, be returned…wink) in the ship’s captain, Jax. That was an unexpected twist that hit nicely. The way D09 being an android affects how that plays out between him and Ana, with the HIVE and Great Dark, and how his (partial?) lack of humanity is used against them, is interesting and I can’t wait to see how it plays out further. Also, in case you want to know what I think, Robb and Jax 4EVA! Haha.
There were a few things that were a little less that perfect about this book though. First, there were many, what felt like so many, little plot twists and turns as we read. There are many characters here whose personalities push them to act individually, so there are constantly multiple plans and secrets in play that interact (sometimes conveniently, and sometimes not so much) with each other as they play out. This was part of what made the book so un-put-down-able. And I do agree that it makes sense within the boundaries of the characters’ personalities and individualized knowledge/trust so far, to work so separately. But the sheer number of mini-plans meant that a few of them didn’t get explained quite fully enough, at least for me. And some of the inferences and mental jumps that were made as a result seemed a bit lucky/farfetched. I definitely had no issues suspending disbelief for the sake of the overall story, and I pushed through confusing connections and kept reading, assuming (correctly) that things would either be explained or not be important enough to matter, so it didn’t ruin my reading experience. But it did color it slightly and I felt it worth noting/warning future readers about. The last thing is that I’m still on the fence about the “big bad.” I liked the mini twist at the end about who’s actually running the show, but (tiny spoiler) I am still not sure I’m sold on, or fully understand, the connection between the plague and the Metals and the HIVE and the Great Dark and how it all works (it’s a bit nebulous for me at this point still.) But I’m staying open-minded going into the second book and hoping for it to get pulled together well. In fact, my hold on it just came in at the library and I’m off to pick it up tomorrow – woohoo!
Bottom line here, I really enjoyed this read. I was incredibly entertained, interested and invested in the characters’ relationships and how the plot would play out. There were some tropes, but also some nice new spins on them, and some plot moves that subverted my expectations, so overall: nothing groundbreaking, but I’m definitely into it enough to finish the duology. And, possibly most important, the retelling of Anastasia part of the novel was great – excellently juxtaposing some of the major parts of that legend with infusions of new and creative variations.
At the end of Heart of Iron, the whole crew of the Dossier is together, new members and all, with the exception of Di… His “body” was taken over by the evil HIVE. And Ana will take all the risks in her desperation to find a way to save Di. When those risks lead the crew into some even worse situations than before, they end up having to go to every extreme not only to save themselves and Di, but also their entire world, from an even bigger evil than they thought: the Great Dark.
“Love didn’t have to be a big thing. It just had to be present…”
The story that began as a reasonably familiar one, that of the “lost princess” Anastasia, took some massive turns away from the recognizable in this follow-up. Which, honestly, is good. I feel like Ana finding out who she really was ended the tale we all know…and how she takes up her new mantle is a new story. In this case, it comes with defeating the Great Dark and saving her world. So, overall, I really liked that redirect in the story. And, where I ended the last one being very confused about the Great Dark and what the story behind that evil is, this one mostly cleared that up. I still think there isn’t a good enough “back story” to why the Great Dark exists, what its goals are, where it came from, etc. but I am willing to accept that it’s been around so long that legends of its origins are forgotten. It’s an easy out, but for the sake of the story, I’ll go with it.
On the other hand, the explanations about the combination of magic and technology/science that make up the HIVE and the Great Dark were much better elaborated on here. That combination is one that I don’t often see (really the only other example of it I can think of it Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky, which was not my favorite), but at least I ended up understanding it by the end. So again, I’m reasonably happy with that. The last plot point I’ll discuss, and vaguely, in an effort to avoid any spoilers, is the ending. I like the semi-open-ended-ness of it all. The fact that this was not, necessarily, the be-all-end-all of the Great Dark was unique. And it helped avoid too much heavy-handedness a far as “chosen one” and “the one way to destroy it” tropes. Maybe not everyone is into that, but I liked the distinctiveness of it. It may have been done a bit too vaguely, but I applaud the effort.
As for the rest, the characters definitely stole the show for me. As I said before, I am a sucker for a rag-tag outlaw group, so the bonds of the crew of the Dossier remain my favorite aspect. I loved that they added a new person, Elara, and the role she played…and her Metal, Xu, but they were more of a tangential character. I loved what we learned about Siege’s background, the continued impressiveness as far as the reach of her connections, her love for her crew, and the way she has “adopted” Ana, Jax and, now, Robb especially. In connection with that, what we learn about Di’s background, basically his origin story, if you will, was incredibly interesting (and enlightening). Ana’s story, while ostensibly the primary focus, was good as well. Not my favorite of the bunch, after we are finished with her Anastasia parallels, but that’s personal preference more than anything else. But the biggest thing I want to point out, a repeat from my last review (and repeated again here, louder, for those in the back) is: ROBB and JAX 4EVA! Yaaaaaassssss – I love them both. Their stories separately are two of the most compelling, as far as growth, and their story together just hits all the right swoon vibes. They’re definitely my favorites – the highlight(s) for me, for sure.
I have to be honest, I thought this duology opened a bit stronger than it finished (as in, the first book was better than this second installment). But even still, the pacing and action of the plot in this second book was nonstop and the character interactions and relationships were all well written and generally compelling. I liked the way everything was wrapped up – it was satisfying and emotionally evocative (I teared up a bit). A very fun and entertaining YA sci-fi duology, one that I quite enjoyed overall.