The Iron Thorn, by Caitlin Kittredge

The Iron Thorn might be Caitlin Kittredge's first book for young readers, but she's sticking to her roots. According to her author bio, she likes writing about "bad things [happening] to perfectly nice characters", and that is definitely true of poor Aoife Grayson, the beleaguered heroine of Kittredge's latest series.

The Iron Thorn is set in an alternate version of 1950s New England, a nightmarish place where people worship a "Master Builder" and live in fear of contracting the necrovirus, a disease blamed for everything from outbreaks of madness to hideous mutations. Fifteen-year-old Aoife is the only female student at the Lovecraft Academy's School of Engines, but her promising future is overshadowed by the fates of her mother and brother, both of whom succumbed to necrovirus-induced madness on their sixteenth birthdays. Determined to avoid a similar fate, Aoife, her best friend Cal, and Dean, their hired guide, set off on a journey to discover the source of her family's susceptibility to the necrovirus.

Most of Kittredge's steampunk take on mid-century America is tremendous fun. We loved the way The Iron Thorn blends straight-up horror (complete with cannibalistic necrovirus victims and the public burnings of heretics) with Aoife's struggle to conform to the gender politics of the era. The period setting fuels most of the conflict between the main characters—particularly Cal and Aoife, whose friendship takes a beating over Cal's notions about "nice" female behavior, even when the female in question is on the run from both the authorities and a variety of flesh-eating monsters.

Unfortunately, the tension created by the tug-of-war between Aoife, Cal, and her new (and far more tolerant) pal Dean falls apart about four-fifths of the way into the novel, when one of the three characters unveils a secret that completely invalidates their entire background story. This bit of sleight-of-hand was irritating and unnecessary, but the strength of the previous 400-odd pages allowed us to get over it. (Well... mostly.) Infuriating last-minute plot twists aside, The Iron Thorn was unique enough to stand out on a bookshelf filled to bursting with supernatural romances and YA horror, so we remain cautiously optimistic about future installments in the series.

Review based on publisher-provided copy.
Posted by: Julia, Last edit by: Julianka


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