Thursday 2 February 2017
#CBR9 Book 9: "Of Dreams and Rust" by Sarah Fine
Rating: 4 stars
Spoiler warning! This is book two in a duology and it will be absolutely impossible for me to review this book without giving away some spoilers for book one, Of Metal and Wishes. Neither book stands well on its own, and they are clearly meant to be read as a whole. If you like going into books completely unspoiled, skip this review until you've finished book one.
It's been a year since the dramatic events that brought down the entire slaughterhouse where Wen and her father worked. Bo, formerly the Ghost of Gochan One, has now made his home underneath the machine factory of Gochan Two, where he also steals parts for his various inventions. Wen frequently spends much of her early mornings with him, tending to his scars and keeping him company. She's worried about this new obsession of making himself a mechanical suit, encasing even his healthy body parts in metal armour. She's also can't put Melik out of her mind. She knows he and his brother returned to their own people. There is a Noor rebellion raging, they're no longer content to be oppressed by the Itanyan empire. The factory where Wen works has just received a new, massive order for new war machines, and she realises they are to be used to crush the Noor once and for all.
Leaving behind her father and everything she's ever known, Wen sneaks out of the factory compound and boards a train toward the border region where the battles have been raging. She needs to try to find Melik and warn him about the upcoming escalation from the Itanyai. Safely away from her former home, she discovers that with the exception of one carriage of civilians, the whole train is full of soldiers disguised as factory workers. The counter-attack on the Noor is clearly happening even sooner than she expected.
When Wen and Melik are finally reunited, there isn't much resemblance to the thoughtful and courteous young man Wen befriended and started falling for a year ago. Guerilla warfare has changed Melik and he appears cold, callous and ruthless now. Cursing her naivety and foolish infatuation, Wen questions the wisdom of her actions, especially after she finds herself a captive of the Noor who believe her to be an Itanyai spy. They want to take her to their commander, to be questioned, possibly tortured and killed. Was Wen entirely wrong about Melik? Has war so changed him that he will choose his loyalty to the Noor rebellion over his feelings for Wen?
While the first book was a slightly flawed, but nonetheless interesting retelling of The Phantom of the Opera, complete with love triangle and Steampunk elements. In the second part, things get a lot more serious, and few of the things that bothered me about the first book are troubling here. Bo, Wen and Melik's characters and personalities are developed very well over the course of the book and the romance that is in its early tentative stages in the first book has more of a chance to blossom here, despite the dramatic situation the characters find themselves in.
Even after Wen discovers that even a war-hardened Melik hasn't completely lost his humanity and compassion, and that he has in fact been thinking of her just as much as she's thought of him, the road of their love doesn't run entirely smooth. Their two peoples have vastly different cultural norms and traditions. The Itanayi are a very reserved and private people, taught that emotional outbursts of any kind are vulgar and inappropriate. They value decorum, and their society is heavily patriarchal. Expressing their emotions in actions or words is difficult for them. The Noor, on the other hand, are very tactile and openly emotional. They are very openly affectionate, and do not hesitate to show anger or grief. They happily express how they feel, and allow their women a much more equal position in their society. So even if there wasn't a war raging around them, with the powerful war machines of the Itanyan empire about to arrive to crush the Noor villages once and for all (no matter what the collateral damage to poorer, rural Itanyai residents in the area), Wen and Melik would have to work to sort out their true feelings for each other.
While Of Metal and Wishes had a lot of unfortunate rape culture and frankly a surprisingly large cast of dislikable supporting characters, the emotional resonance of this book would not be as great if I hadn't read that one first. Wen becomes a proper heroine in her own right, rather than mostly a damsel in distress. Melik is fighting for the liberty and future of his own people, while struggling not to give into the temptation of mindless violence against those who have oppressed them for so long. The odds are certainly not in the Noor's favour, and the costs of the near-impossible victory are likely to be very high indeed.
I liked the unusual location of this fantasy duology, but can absolutely understand while a lot of other reviewers have wished that the Asian influences were more pronounced and obvious. As it is, it all becomes a bit tokenistic. While the beginning had it's problems, the duology as a whole is a very satisfying and emotional read. I was absolutely teary-eyed for parts of Of Dreams and Rust.
Judging a book by its cover: It looks like they've changed cover models from Of Metal and Wishes, but I can't imagine from the cover image that this isn't supposed to be Wen. She wears the distinctive red outfit with the wide sash at a particularly significant scene in the book, but I wish they'd arranged the cover model's hair to fit the scene as well. Also, the robes are supposed to be quite a bit too big for Wen, but I guess they didn't want things to look slouchy on the cover of the book.
Crossposted on Cannonball Read.