Donna's life hasn't been the same since that devastating night in the Ironwood. After the attack, her arms and hands were branded with alchemical tattoos to save her from the near-fatal injuries, and ever since she's been forced to hide the mystical markings from the world -- including her best friend Navin. But when Navin is kidnapped by the nastiest outcasts of Faerie, Donna is drawn into the deadly world of alchemical secrets and fey politics she has long struggled to forget. To save Navin, she must face the demons that haunt her nightmares and journey back into the realm that killed her father, drove her mother mad and branded her a freak for life.
The Iron Witch opens with an arresting flashback that reads like a Grimm fairy tale, setting an ancient, mystical tone. The premise is intriguing, blending the fey and alchemist mythologies, yet this original element could be more elaborated to give readers a clearer sense of the world-building. As a result, it is the characters who drive this novel. Donna is a fierce heroine -- one who can take care of herself and refuses to let anyone push her around. I especially love that she is the inhumanly strong one (because of her tattoos) who is afraid to hurt Navin, rather than another fragile human girl thrown in among the supernatural. Karen Mahoney's sly awareness of many such failings in teen heroines is winning -- Donna is constantly determined not to be "that girl."
Navin is equally lovable and an utterly realistic best friend. It is wonderful to see a healthy, strong teenage friendship represented in a YA novel, with all its highs and lows and loyalty. Amid the fantasy elements, Mahoney deftly captures these contemporary realities, from Donna's best friend bond to the obnoxious cliques at her former high school. Donna's method of dealing with the cattiness is delightful and believable -- she gives as good as she gets, but also masks a secret pain behind her stoic facade. However, her romance with Xan develops rather too rapidly, and as a character he alternates between roughness and sensitivity -- at times enchanting readers with his charm and at others pushing them away, making it difficult to invest in him as a hero. Nonetheless, The Iron Witch will draw readers into the tense and suspenseful climax as the story spirals toward its final, nerve-wracking confrontation.
Disclosure: I received an advance review copy of this novel from the publisher. This did not affect my review in any way.