Monday, January 14, 2013

Review - "Iron Hearted Violet"

I have to be picky about what I read, because my time, limited as it is, is precious. Every year there are books that I love, books that I like, and books that simply miss me (although these are not plentiful). But rarely does a book come along about which I have such complicated feelings as Kelly Barnhill’s Iron Hearted Violet.

Violet is not your typical princess (although her kind is being seen more and more). She’s got wild, unruly hair, uneven eyes (which are differently colored) and a keen intelligence. “She was the type of child a person wanted to impress.” As she grows, her uniqueness becomes even more pronounced and her strength of character is hard to ignore. In short, Violet is a badass. At times, as story dictated, a belligerent, distracted and difficult to be around badass, but a badass all the same. Violet’s life is upended when her father rides off on a search for the very last dragon, and her mother falls ill after losing yet another child at birth. Soon matters fall altogether out of hand when a rogue god manipulates the young princess and her kingdom for his own gain, and the whole world might be in jeopardy, leaving only Violet and her friend Demetrius a chance to save the day.
First things first: Barnhill’s world building is remarkable. There are two suns, a mirrored sky and a castle that lives, all inhabiting but a single world in a multiverse created by jealous, immature, squabbling gods. This is a world where stories are wonderful, dangerous things, a stable-boy can “speak” to animals and the fate of the world may lie in the buried heart of a dragon. Violet, as exceptional as she is, fits into her world, though she thinks she doesn’t.

Secondly, I applaud Barnhill’s employment of the storyteller Cassian as narrator. Cassian is at times cowardly and cautious, but seemingly omnipotent. He holds great deals of power, but is at times too fearful or stubborn to realize or utilize it. Upon a second reading, I might look for places that he was perhaps not altogether reliable, but on my initial reading, I was too engrossed in the story to think about it.
Now to the nitty gritty. This book shouldn’t work. It very nearly doesn’t. It’s far too crowded with details: the mythology of the worlds, Violet and all her glory, her father’s weaknesses, her mother’s fate, her friend’s journey, the little people, the angry god, the role of the dragon, etc. While reading, I was often compelled to think, “This is just too much.” But the thing is, it does work. It’s frustrating at times, but if you’re willing to put the work in, it’s very rewarding. The ending, well earned, is bittersweet in its beauty. And Violet alone is a remarkable thing. Course as sandpaper at times, but full of love and courage. She may not be a beauty, but she’s got it where it counts.

Iron Hearted Violet isn’t for everyone. It won’t work for everyone. This is a unusual book, a little prickly (like Violet herself) and frayed at the edges. But if you are the right person for this book, you’ll get a mighty reward. I don’t think I’m wrong in saying it is the most audacious book I read in 2012.

Iron Hearted Violet by Kelly Barnhill
2012, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Library copy


  1. Wow. Thank you. That's the most clear-eyed, tough, and affirming review I've ever seen. And it made my night.


    1. You're welcome! And thank you for reading and commenting. :)