Madness runs deep in fifteen-year-old Aoife Grayson’s family, and she fears she’s doomed to follow in her mother Nerissa’s footsteps and end up a resident in one of Lovecraft’s seventeen madhouses. She lives in a Steampunk alternate universe world in the city of Lovecraft, Massachusetts, sometime in the 1950s. Aoife’s brother, Conrad, who also went to the Lovecraft Academy where she is enrolled, went mad at the age of sixteen and attacked his sister with a knife, holding the tip of the blade to her throat and drawing a thin trickle of blood. Her sixteenth birthday is fast approaching, and she worries that when that day arrives, she will also fall victim to the curse of madness. It’s a widespread madness that has swept America and the world like a plague, and has resulted in horrors like the Nightjars.
Heretics, those who have rejected Reason and the world view that the Proctors present to the citizens and students of Lovecraft as the truth (or those accused of doing so), are taken to Banishment Square and burned with steam heated by the city’s Engines. Aoife looks forward to and dreams of the day when she will graduate from the Academy and become a respected and well-paid Engineer, a profession that most people believe is solely a man’s. But she is a ward of the State, living off of charity, her mother in the madhouse and her father living far off in the city of Arkham, apparently not wanting to acknowledge her or her brother. She can’t help but to think that her dreams will be shattered and turn into hideous nightmares when the madness that is a part of her heritage surfaces when she turns sixteen.
Conrad has managed to maintain irregular contact with Aoife through letters with hidden messages written in smoky ghost writing. The last letter he has sent Aoife contains the message that he needs her help, and Aoife, despite thinking her brother is mad, holds out some hope for him and wants to come to his aid. She and her best friend, Cal Daulton, leave Lovecraft Academy to travel to her father’s house in Arkham, hoping to find Conrad and help him. Leaving means they will potentially be leaving behind any chance they have at a prosperous future for themselves. They might be thought heretics, also, and Aoife’s actions considered by the Proctors to be evidence that the madness that runs through her family has finally claimed her, as well.
As I read The Iron Thorn, I really loved all of the references Caitlin Kittredge makes to the iconic horror author, H.P. Lovecraft. His tales were full of images of eldritch horror, demons, despair, and madness. You may have heard of the name Arkham before, in reference to Batman comics, video games, and movies. It’s the name of both an insane asylum and a city in them. But Arkham was first imagined by H.P. Lovecraft, and figures in several of his stories. It’s become a symbol of insanity. Kittredge dedicates her novel to the memory of H.P. Lovecraft, acknowledging his influence on her and her novel The Iron Thorn.
Dean, who serves as their guide, is essential for them to even hope to reach Arkham. He takes them over the Babbage Bridge, a bridge that was supposed to have collapsed several years back, taking with it the lives of 21 people. Yet, they cannot deny seeing it with their own eyes. A steam-powered automaton asks for payment to allow them to cross safely. Dean has a key that he uses, inserting it into the automaton’s chest, which allows him to pass. But from Aoife, the payment is her blood. The trio’s journey to Arkham, over the bridge (named after Charles Babbage, a famous English mathematician, philosopher, inventor, and mechanical engineer who originated the concept of a programmable computer and is known as the “father of the computer”), and their flight to Arkham in a dirigible are just some of the novel’s exciting and thrilling plot elements.
The Iron Thorn is one of the best YA novels I’ve read in some time. It’s a relatively long novel, at over 500 pages, but I was caught up in the story and Aoife’s and Cal’s adventures trying to escape the city of Lovecraft, reach her father’s house (Graystone Manor) in Arkham, and help her brother, so the book’s length didn’t detract at all from my enjoyment of it. I found it hard to believe one reviewer’s opinion that she thought many pages could be cut out and not even be noticed. To me, it’s the kind of book I hated to see end, because the writing is poetic and moving, and the vividly described characters jump right out of the pages into your imagination. If you love urban fantasies, Steampunk literature, and dig H.P. Lovecraft, I highly recommend that you check out the beauty and the madness that is The Iron Thorn.