Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Iron Witch by Karen Mahoney

Both Sarah and I felt the need to read and review Ms. Mahoney's book for various personal reasons and so we thought we'd both read it and do a combined review a la Booksmugglers.
Our first ever combined review:


FREAK. That’s what her classmates call seventeen-year-old Donna Underwood. When she was seven, a horrific fey attack killed her father and drove her mother mad. Donna’s own nearly fatal injuries from the assault were fixed by magic—the iron tattoos branding her hands and arms. The child of alchemists, Donna feels cursed by the magical heritage that destroyed her parents and any chance she had for a normal life. The only thing that keeps her sane and grounded is her relationship with her best friend, Navin Sharma.

When the darkest outcasts of Faerie—the vicious wood elves—abduct Navin, Donna finally has to accept her role in the centuries old war between the humans and the fey. Assisted by Xan, a gorgeous half-fey dropout with secrets of his own, Donna races to save her friend—even if it means betraying everything her parents and the alchemist community fought to the death to protect.

Liz’s Thoughts:

The Iron Witch starts with a party. Donna doesn’t like parties, she’s not too keen being at one, but then her best friend Navin had asked her to come with him, and honestly, she couldn’t really so no to him.

At the party, Donna meets the mysterious Xan who acts pretty much the idiot. He is the host of said party but when she meets him, he’s sitting on the roof of the house, hiding out. from his guests. Xan however is not the idiot he acts to be. He realises he’s screwing up by being weird towards Donna and in the end he apologises and sees her off home with Navin. Navin, of course, ends up in a bit of a huff. He doesn’t think much of Xan but Donna finds herself strangely attracted to him - admittedly he’s handsome and when he wants to be, he’s sweet, but she senses that there is more to him than that. But how can she tell this to Navin who seems set on not wanting to understand?

As the opening chapters progress, we learn that Donna is a special girl indeed. When she was small, creatures attacked her and basically destroyed her arms and this was when she lost her dad as something killed him as he tried to protect her. She doesn’t recall why she was in the bizarre forest of Ironbridge or why these creatures were after her either or why she was attacked. What she does know is that now she is a freak. She’s not entirely human. The metal that keeps her arms together is some kind of magical construct put together through alchemy and who knows what else? She has the mysterious Maker to thank for her silver implants and for saving her life.

She now lives with her aunt who is someone high up in a group of alchemists. Both Donna’s parents were alchemists too. And Donna is undergoing training as an alchemist herself. This of course means that the reader is quickly brought up to speed with all things alchemical necessary for the importance of various objects to make sense later in the story. There is a lot of medieval lore about alchemy and I take my hat off to the author as you can tell how much hard work has gone into the research. And yet, she walks a thin balance, showing us just enough alchemical lore to keep us interested and to progress the story without inundating us with it and boring us.

Donna meets with Xan a few times and as their hesitant friendship grows we have the opportunity to learn more about Donna (and Xan) and we realise that Donna’s a wonderfully intelligent, amusing and conflicted main character. But it is when Donna is with Navin that she really shines and we see her relaxed and at ease. But even Navin, her best friend, doesn’t know the extent of the Donna’s secrets.

The story is set in Ironbridge, a town in America that is entirely fictional. It allows Ms. Mahoney great leverage and she has the opportunity to create a lot of interesting settings, including the deeply mysterious forest of Ironbridge. And with the forest come the wood elves. Awful twisted creatures from our deepest nightmares. They add an extra level of menace and darkness to The Iron Witch. Tied in with them we find out a bit about Xan’s background and it’s not pleasant and we surmise a few things about Donna’s own background.

It’s when Navin gets taken by these creatures that things kick off into a new level of scary and it is up to Donna to face some of her own fears, break all the rules she knows, and push herself to the limit to do everything she can to save her friend.

Overall thoughts:

I’ve waited a long time to read The Iron Witch. I am pleased to say that it was worth the wait. Ms. Mahoney gives us a fresh new voice, interesting characters and above all, interesting rich lore - and I’m not just talking about the alchemy either. Her dark elves are deliciously menacing and their leader, The Wood Queen a really interesting villain. I couldn’t help but feel intrigued by her - she is on a knife’s edge of going either way as the villain - is she really bad or is she only bad because we don’t know her full story? I loved the ambiguity in this instance and although the story ends well, with several strands tied off, there are enough questions left over to make us wait (im)patiently for The Iron Witch’s companion novels, The Wood Queen and The Stone Demon.

Sarah’s thoughts

I’ve also been keen (okay – champing at the bit) to read The Iron Witch. Ages ago I remember Karen Mahoney using a lovely icon on her blog of a girl walking down a narrow path, mist surrounding her, and saying she thought it was the perfect icon for her book. I couldn’t wait to find out more about this mysterious world so was excited to get my hands on a copy. Immediately the reader is thrust into the action through an extract from Donna’s journal and we know that something extraordinary has happened to her in the past. Next, we’re straight into the present with her meeting with Xan at the party. I loved aloof Xan immediately (oh dear, that’s not a good sign as he definitely should have a sign saying, “Bad Boy,” hanging over his head). The first chapter crackles with the underlying feeling that everything is not what it seems. I love this feeling; when you’re at the start of a book that you’ve been looking forward to and you know you’re on the brink of falling into a new world.

The town of Ironbridge met my expectations and more. It has that glorious dual feeling of being a normal place with high schools and coffee shops but underneath it’s sizzling with mystery; elves, hidden Old Paths, workshops and shadowy houses. It provides everything I love about urban fantasy – the feeling that just a hair’s breadth away is another world waiting to be discovered. Ironbridge provides the perfect platform for the events of The Iron Witch.

Aside from the setting there are a wealth of great characters. Donna is instantly likeable by being both vulnerable but with an inner strength and strong belief in what’s right and wrong. Her relationship with Xan enables her to break out of the semi-cloistered world she’s been stuck in. She finds herself able to let go a little with him and the scene where she takes off her long gloves for him in a coffee shop is both touching and intimate. As their relationship grows Donna finds herself drawn into a world where she’s lead to question her beliefs.

Underlying all the action is a great deal of research into alchemy which serves to make the story all the more rich. As Liz has said, there’s just enough detail to intrigue the reader and I loved Donna’s investigations into the Frost estate, which is both beautiful but strangely threatening. To sum up, The Iron Witch is quite simply a gorgeous read. I was pulled in and bewitched by it but now I have to wait for the sequel. I wonder if tapping my fingers on the desk will make it come any quicker?

Find Karen Mahoney's website here.

Competition Time!

We are so excited about The Iron Witch that we bribed Random House to PUHLEASE let us give some copies away.  And, of course, they totally agreed. (ah, the power of cake)

Here's what we've got to offer:

FIVE copies of THE IRON WITCH to give away.  FOUR to UK people and ONE to a lucky international entrant.

Rules: comment below if you'd like to enter and tell us what it is about urban fantasy that appeals to you.  Remember to make sure we know how to contact you if you enter - i.e. twitter name / link to website etc. Oh, also tell us if you're UK or elsewhere.

The competition will run till 20th January and I'm diarising it now so that we can the winners on the day.  Good luck!

What are you waiting for?  Get entering!  


asamum said...

I loved this book. I would like a proper copy to snuggle :D
Great reviews btw - I have scheduled mine but I think yours puts it to shame :D

Vivienne said...

What I love about urban fantasy is that paranormal and fantasy are allowed to exist side by side with reality. It isn't seen as unbelievable.

This books sounds fantastic. Please can i be entered in the UK draw.

Miss Sigh...anide in the Word Emporium said...

Hi, this is a great competition; I've had my eye on The Iron Witch ever since I first saw it on a blog and your reviews just made me more determined that I have to read it.

What I really like about Urban Fantasy is the near unlimited potential for world's parallel, or completely different, to our own. I suppose all books create a new world to an extent, but UF seems to go that extra mile in creating something that readers can escape into while they read - and isn't that the point?

I live in the UK and my email is Thank you for the chance to win such an apparently awesome book :).

Lisa said...

Hello Lisa here just wanted to leave a comment as this book "The Iron Witch" sounds amazing. I am a big fan of urban fantasy because it has so many possibilities; the stories are set in the here and now but include fantasy and mythological elements which makes you feel as though anything can happen. Fairies could be hiding in the woods, your next-door neighbour could be a witch or your cat could be a shapeshifter. I live in Ireland and I hope I win a copy. Thank you

fozmeadows said...

I love the fact that urban fantasy takes our curiosity about everyday unknowns and turns it into magic. That strange door you pass every day on your way to work - where does it lead? The mysterious girl with the strange tattoos - who is, she really? Really, we don't know nearly as much as we think we do about the world, and urban fantasy thrives on that uncertainty.

UK commenter, btw - I'm currently based in Scotland.

ladydi6497 said...

This book sounds wonderful. I am definitely going to have to read this one.

I love urban fantasy because it leaves so many possibilities to the imagination. Could the person next to me be a faery? Vampire? Shapeshifter? Hmmmm....I wonder.


Bloggomy said...

Urban Fantast offers not just a chance to escape to another world but also a totally asorbing experience you can almost 'be there'

Please enter me for the draw.


Bloggomy said...

Oh and I am UK and my email is and follow on twitter as @Bobbity666


Jen said...

This book sounds brill! Would love to read this. I love urban fantasy as I just forget about 'my real life' and am completely transported to another world - however, this other world is not totally unbelieveable...
I find myself telling everyone about the books i'm reading, talking to them about shapeshifters, werewolves, vampires as if it's very normal. lol.
I love the fact that in these books anything is possible.......

Twitter ID : @luckyduckyme

Clover said...

I think Vivienne said it in a much better way than I could have, but yeah - what I love about urban fantasy is the fantasy mixed with realism. It makes it easier for me to believe when a story is grounded in a reality that I am aware of.

Please enter me in the UK draw - my email address is

flutteringbutterfliesblog (a) googlemail (dot) com

K said...

Wow, sounds a great read, your description has me intrigued. Iron tattoos, wow, sound beautiful yet cold & painful, new mystical lands to explore ..... & the bit that intrigues me most is "Ironbridge", I live very near a town called Ironbridge that sounds very much how you described, its a mixture of modern and old, with winding country walks mixed with council estates ... I would love to read it to see of the author just made up the name or if she was influenced by the actual town called Ironbridge.

Please put me in the UK draw.
You can be contacted on twitter:

Shall be keeping my fingers crossed.

natalie23 said...

What I love about urban fantasy is that it makes it seem that magic/supernatural world is right here. You could be talking to a vampire , werewolf or something in your everday life and not even know it.
I'm in the U.K.


tumblenc said...

I like urban fantasy because it's realistic, and it's interesting to see the contrast between the real and the fantasy world.

commenter not from the UK, twitter handle: @tumblenc

Chrizette said...

I have been watching this book for a while now and would love to win a copy (not a UK entry). Urban fantasy is a gray area for me - I love some but some are too "real" for me. The Iron Witch sounds like a good mix to me :)

baychriz at gmail dot com

CazApr1 said...

I like the idea of 'normal' living side by side with paranormal, and think a character trying to fit in while at the same time dealing with fantastical issues can be really interesting! I'd love to win a copy! @CazApr1 on Twitter, from UK

The Slowest Bookworm said...

I think my answer is similar to many of the above. I love urban fantasy because of the realistic setting. It makes me feel that maybe, just maybe this could really happen!

I'm a UK blogger. :))

Twitter @slowestbookworm or you can contact me easy leash thru my blog link :D

Emily said...

I'm so excited to read TIW!!! 'eeps' What I love about urban fantasy is the grittiness and the dark other-worlds presented. Plus the kick-butt heroines and interesting magics.

Elsewhere :D

Twitter @Emily_writer

Michelle said...

OH yay! I can't wait to read this book. UF appeals to moi because of the mixture of recognizable life/places mixed in with crazy magic and people carrying around swords or being descended from faeries and such. Fascinating stuff.

I live in the US

mmillet at gmail dot com


Anonymous said...

Alexis Salcido here! I love how urban fantasy takes on a ton of elements. Like the Iron Witch. It has alchemy and magic. I think it's really amazing..My email address is I live in TX and would love to win! Kaz is a fantastic person :)

Cass (Words on Paper) said...

I don't know. It's so surreal and yet it kind of enmeshes some semblance of reality in its genre. And I like that I can just escape.


cc932005 at hotmail dot com

Linda said...

When you're little, you quite happily accept talking ducks and bears who won't brush their teeth. Then you get a bit older, and you're supposed to leave that behind, and live in the 'real' world of school and spots and coursework and jobs. Urban fantasy whispers enticingly that you were right to suspect the magic hasn't all gone . . .

Something Wicked This Way Comes said...

Urban Fantasy personally works best for my imagination, always being a city girl its much more easier for me to fantasize about paranormal right alongside what I would perceive as normal whereas as out in the countryside/forest its not something im familiar with as much as I would be with an urban setting. Putting unbelieving along side what we would take as a given makes it possible so much more to be truer.Hope that was coherent enough and translated my somewhat jumbled thoughts. Im from the UK and will have fingers crossed on the 20th before opening my email

I ♥ Book Gossip said...

Urban Fantasy is a combination of now the present and a splash of paranormal. It's like vamps living in the city while drinking a latte. Its real but with a kick. I love it. Personally, its very chic if you ask me.

Please count me in.

US entry. Thanks!
cindyc725 at gmail dot com

Brodie said...

Fantastic reviews!! You have me seriously lusting for then 100 times more than I was ten minutes ago. Not sure whether to love your hate you for that since it's not released yet :P

I like urban fantasy because it gives me hope that maybe, just maybe in my dull, boring supernatural-free life there is a whole underground system of witches, werewolves, vamps and ghosts just begging for me to uncover them and be swept up in the danger and romance. *dreamy sigh*

Thank you so much for the awesome giveaway! I'm an international participant :)

Kelly aka yllektra(I Work For Books) said...

What an awesome giveaway!
This book is so on my TBR list of 2011, and on my reading challenge too.
And after reading your reviews I am again reminded why! :P

Thanks so much for this opportunity.

I have to say that I love Urban Fantasy novels because the author has the chance to create a completely different world than the one we live in now and make it as dark and weird and unconventional he/she wants.
We get to explore characters and relationships in a deeper and more profound way than we do in YA novels because there is less "censorship" in the sense that the author doesn't have to be so careful about the language, or the nature of things. It can be sinister and menacing and "adult".

And like E. Hayes said once: in UF love makes the darkness worthwhile as opposed to YA novels wherein love conquers the darkness.

I'm from Greece so yes and international participant! :P

Kelly @ I Work For Books

Kate Coombs said...

Oh, I've been wondering about this one--thanks for the review! And sure, I'd love a copy. I'm in the U.S. [kateATkatecoombsDOTcom]

mariska said...

i love urban fantasy because i can 'see' a different world with a different creatures inside the world :)

- I'm an international reader

uniquas at ymail dot com

N. said...

As an old time New World of Darkness player and GM I am always looking forward to read urban fantasy.
Especially dark ones.

The story in the book reminds me of White Wolfs nWoD splat "Changling the Lost".

I am from good ol'Germany.