Saturday 4 October 2014

Review: Iron Sky: Dread Eagle by Alex Woolf

The year is 1845. Since Napoleon's famous victory at Waterloo, France and Britain have been locked in a long and bloody war for global supremacy. This breathtaking steampunk adventure introduces an alternative 19th century of giant airships soaring through the skies above the English Channel, fantastical, steam-powered automata, aerial steam carriages, floating cities, giant mechanical birds and a new kind of secret agent. 

Enter the world of Iron Sky... In this version of reality, an ageing Napoleon is threatening a full-scale invasion of Britain. Opposing him is Sir George Jarrett, head of the Imperial British Secret Service, helped by an all-female team of aerial spies known as the Sky Sisters. The youngest of them is Lady Arabella West. As war clouds loom, airships start to disappear, and rumours spread of a mysterious terror in the skies. Arabella, with the help of her automaton sidekick, Miles, sets out to investigate.

A while ago I saw author Alex Woolf tweet a handful of images from his new book and my jaw hit the ground. There were beautifully illustrated steampunk-style schematics of the aircraft from his new book, Iron Sky: Dread Eagle, and I expressed my awe on Twitter. Shortly after Scribo Books, Dread Eagle's UK publisher, asked me if I would like a copy and without thinking for very long at all I answered with a big, fat 'Yes, please!" When the book arrived, I could not help but go straight for Mark Bergin's illustrations - the examples that accompany this review, and others, are all produced as lavish fold-outs, and are almost wasted in a book. These illustrations deserve to be framed and put on a wall for all to see. Scribo and their illustrators have done a fantastic job with the overall packaging of this book, and all of a sudden I was worried: would the story match the quality of its packaging?

The answer to this is a massive yes. It is a fast-paced steampunk adventure set in an alternate history 1845. I'd call it a classic Boys' Own style adventure story, but that would be doing a great disservice to Alex and his creations, as one of the real standout elements of this story is its main character: Lady Arabella West. Eighteen year old Arabella is one of the most experienced pilots in the all-female Sky Sisters, a part of the flying corps of the British Imperial Secret Service, and when an unconscious crewman of a missing airship washes up on Brighton Beach, she is dispatched, along with the rest of the Sky Sisters, to investigate. She soon finds herself a captive on a mysterious, cloud-surrounded sky city, the prisoner of some rather nasty villains, with only her faithful automaton Miles (Mobile Independent Logical Englishman Simulacrum) for company.

It is so good to find another action adventure story where the main character is a girl, and one who does not have to rely on a male character to get her out of trouble all of the time. In fact, it is Arabella who seems to do most of the rescuing in this story, and I would love to see more of this in Middle Grade and YA fiction. I mention both of these rather loose age categories, as I am still not entirely sure which age this is book is aimed at. The age of Arabella would normally suggest a definite YA target market, but the story reads like an action adventure story for 11+ readers. Such an older main character in a book suitable for kids as young as 11 is a pretty rare thing these days, and even after wracking my brain I can only liken it to the classic Biggles stories - an adult character in books aimed squarely at young readers. As far as content in Dread Eagle is concerned, apart from a scene where Arabella is tortured, which is not in the least bit gory or graphic, there is little that would make this inappropriate for 11 year olds. I guess this makes it a great story for adventure lovers of all ages. hell, I'm 43 and I loved it!

I'm so glad that publishers are giving us more authors writing action adventure stories with no teen angst, loads of action and really, really fun characters. The kids I chat with about books at school are so becoming so fed up with darkness in their books, to the point where many gave up on shadowing the last Carnegie Prize shortlist in despair, that it is great to have books that are just pure, enjoyable excitement from beginning to end.

Dread Eagle is the first in the Iron Sky series and I am definitely keen to read more of Lady Arabella West's adventures in the future. My thanks go the the publisher for sending me a copy of the book to read.


  1. There are plenty of good strong female characters in children's and YA fiction these days, as you'll know. Not only Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan series, but Garth Nix's Old Kingdom books(read, in my library, more by boys than girls) and Michael Pryor's Steampunk Laws Of Magic series in which the main character is a boy, but ALL the female characters without exception are strong, intelligent and, in some cases, kick-ass - but not always, because if you are an explorer or a scientist or even a famous artist, you can get someone else to kick ass for you - even the characters' mothers are interesting in their own right. It's a good time to be reading YA.

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