Book Review: ‘Ink, Iron, and Glass’

by Sarah Pennington

Every fantasy author wants to write a world that comes to life on the page. But in the world of “Ink, Iron, and Glass,” Gwendolyn Clare’s steampunk historical fantasy debut novel, the science of “scriptology” allows people to literally bring other worlds into existence.

Our heroine, Elsa, comes from one such world created by her mother. But when her mother is abducted and the book that contains her world disappears, Elsa must use her own scriptology skills and band together with a group of three other young scientists in order to rescue what’s hers before it’s too late. But before long, Elsa and her companions realize that they’ve stumbled into a web of political conspiracy and danger greater than anything they imagined.

No one could deny that the premise of “Ink, Iron, and Glass” is extraordinarily promising. Fantasy set in an alternate Victorian Italy? Magical-scientist protagonists— not just scriptologists, but alchemists and magic-mechanics as well? A tentacle bat-creature? Conspiracy and assassins? It sounds like the recipe for a near-perfect book.

However, while “Ink, Iron, and Glass” is definitely a unique and engaging read, it falls flat in a few key respects.

One of these aspects is the setting and, in particular, the “magic” system. Certainly there is material to enjoy here. Victorian Italy is a fairly unusual setting, and Clare’s mingling of real history with fantastic elements adds a bit of extra depth to the story.

The various worlds of the scriptologists are fascinating as well, and Clare gives readers a good look at the method behind this science-magic. Unfortunately, scriptology and its accompaniments, alchemy and mechanics, will also raise troublesome questions in some readers’ minds— namely, the question of whether these fields are meant to be science or if they’re really some kind of magic. Certain elements, like the nature of scriptology and the fact that only certain people seem to be able to practice in these fields, suggest magic, yet mechanics seems essentially scientific, and alchemy walks the border between the two. Following this line of questioning causes the worldbuilding to break down all too quickly.

The characters are another mixed bag. On one hand, the cast is fairly well-rounded. Elsa and Porzia are particularly enjoyable to read; they’re both practical and smart without losing their femininity.

The book also features some diversity: Elsa hails from a world reminiscent of the Pacific Islands or somewhere similar, and another character, Faraz, is from Tunisia (by way of Turkey.) However, while one might like and appreciate the characters, something about the way they’re written makes them feel unfortunately distant.

In addition, the main romance between Elsa and Leo smacks of insta-love and shallow attraction. Christian readers likely won’t appreciate the one or two times when the pair edges towards inappropriate situations (though they always stop before actually doing anything more than kissing).

The plot manages to stand strong under scrutiny. The storyline is exciting: not constant action, but enough to keep readers on their toes. The plot twists are foreshadowed well, allowing them to be surprising and satisfying but not out-of-the-blue.

In conclusion, “Ink, Iron, and Glass” is a mixed bag of a book with a fascinating premise but sometimes-poor delivery. Readers who want a casual, exciting, and unique read will likely enjoy this book and eagerly await the sequel (title and release date currently unavailable). However, those looking for deep themes or sturdy worldbuilding will likely have better luck with another book.

Sarah Pennington is a sophomore Professional Writing and Information Design major and an Arts and Entertainment reporter for Cedars. She loves chai tea and dragons and is perpetually either reading or writing a book.

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