Jane Eliot wears an iron mask covering half her face to eliminate the effects of the fey curse she was scarred with five years ago during the war. If not for the mask, the curse fills other people with anger and rage for no particular reason. Jane gets hired as a governess for Dorie, a five-year-old girl, who lives in a half-destroyed country mansion, owned by her father Edward Rochart, an artist who sculpts grotesque face masks out of clay.
She doesn't see a whole lot of him, but there is the monosyllabic maid, snarky cook and bookish housekeeper (sorry, "butler") to keep her company. Dorie doesn't like to use her hands, she much prefers psychokinesis. Such a blatant fay curse must not be seen by outsiders, it would ruin her father's reputation, so Jane tries to teach the girl how to use her hands with tools. All the while falling in love with her employer ...
From the acknowledgements at the back of the book, this novel started out as a novella, and someone pointed out similarities to Jane Eyre. As the references are obvious in this novel, I guess these bits must have been expanded on when turning the novella into a novel. Those who are interested in this book purely because it's touted as "steampunk Jane Eyre" should probably curb their enthusiasm. There are similarities with Jane Eyre, undoubtedly, but it's not a straight re-telling in a fantasy/steampunk setting.
If you, on the other hand, go into it expecting a fantasy/steampunk story with elements of Jane Eyre, you'll fare much better. In fact, you'll probably get a kick out of recognising some of the exchanges between Jane and Rochart. They might not be cut-and-paste, but they are familiar. Some of the dialogue is adapted from Jane Eyre's narration rather than actual speech, and sometimes, Jane Eliot might say a version of something Rochester said in the original, or the other way around. I enjoyed it, at any rate!
The setting itself is gloomy and dark - with heavy curtains, dark wood panels and so on - but I wouldn't call it depressing. There isn't really that sense of despair, and Jane is constantly trying to find a solution.
I would say that there is too little of Rochart, but I never really thought about how the lack of interaction would make it difficult to understand why they fall in love with one another. It just seemed that their encounters draw them closer together quickly. On the other hand, if fey curses can make you sense the other person's inner feelings, that probably helps.
Rochart's artistry wasn't a big surprise, to be honest, and I wasn't too surprised about something else found out very near the end, even though it was still an "oh ... right then ... fancy that!" sort of thing.
Speaking of the ending, it felt rushed. The rest of the book plods along at its own pace, no problem, and then things start happening, a lot of things at once, and you look at the remaining pages and wonder how on earth this is going to be resolved in the handful of pages left. Ironskin is apparently the first book in a series by the same name, so I wondered if the resolution would be saved for a sequel or something, but no, things come to a head very quickly and BAM, book ends. It's abrubt.
It's never made entirely clear when the novel is set, although it seems to be something akin to the 1920s, and it's clearly in our world - except for the fey and their technology. The setting and backstory of the war is interesting, and there is plenty of potential to write prequels, if that is of interest to the author.
Overall, I found Ironskin to be well-written, but sometimes I had to read a sentence a couple of times because the wording was peculiar, or because words were missed out ("fragment, consider revising" as a certain word processor would put it). Not by accident I'm guessing, but deliberately, as a stylistic statement. It worked in parts, and in other parts, it was somewhat confusing. Still, it's not put me off wanting to find out what happens next.
I enjoyed reading about Jane and Dorie (and darling Rochart broods like a trooper!), and the fact that I finished this book rather quickly is a testament to that. Jane is resourceful and I quite like her, and I can't wait to read more about Poule (the "butler") either, who was probably my favourite character.
Ironskin might not appeal to everyone, especially not those who think it's just going to be a somewhat supernatural rendition of Jane Eyre, because there's more to it than that. I like fantasy and steampunk, and I like Jane Eyre, so for me, it was a very good combination. It's more inspired by Brontė's novel than trying to copy it and paste it into a different world.