Iron Heart by Nina Varela (Crier's War #2)

For too long, Automae have lorded over the kingdom of Rabu, oppressing its human citizens. But the human revolution has risen, and at its heart is Ayla. Once a handmaiden, now a fugitive, Ayla narrowly escaped the palace of Lady Crier, the girl she would've killed if she hadn't fallen in love first.

Now Ayla has pledged her allegiance to Queen Junn, who can help accomplish the human rebellion's ultimate goal: destroy the Iron Heart. Without its power, the Automae will be weakened to the point of extinction. Ayla wants to succeed, but can't shake the strong feelings she's developed for Crier. And unbeknownst to her, Crier has also fled the palace, taking up among traveling rebels, determined to find and protect Ayla.

Even as their paths collide, nothing can prepare them for the dark secret underlying the Iron Heart.

TITLE: Iron Heart
AUTHOR: Nina Varela with Kim Mai Guest (Narrator)
PUBLISHER: HarperCollins
YEAR: 2020
LENGTH: 416 pages (12 hours 51 minutes)
AGE: Young Adult
GENRE: Fantasy, Romance

Queer Rep Summary: Lesbian/Sapphic Main Character(s), Genderqueer/Nonbinary Minor Character(s).

IRON HEART follows what happened after Crier ran away from her wedding, and Ayla ran away from her failure to kill Crier. 

The worldbuilding from CRIER'S WAR is built on and complicated slightly in IRON HEART. This is everything from revealing the true nature of heartstone's production, to making it clear that humans and Automae have fallen in love before. My favorite bit is the technically-not-zombies, they're handled in a pretty cool way and make several appearances. I also love Queen Junn, she's a fantastic character.

This is the second book of a duology, and the the whole point of it is to wrap up things left hanging from CRIER’S WAR, which it does admirably. It gives resolutions to a bunch of characters (major and minor), untangles several heartstone-related mysteries, and handles atrocities, both recent and longstanding. There’s a minor storyline which begins and ends in this volume, and this focuses more on journeys than the first one did. As the final book it deals with systemic injustices which were established in the first one, doing so in ways that free most individuals from the oppressed/oppressor dynamics which were getting in the way of this sapphic love story. It wrapped up hanging plot threads and provided closure for several characters in ways I wasn’t expecting, which is nice. The point-of-view characters are the same, and they're consistent with their previous voices even though they've grown and changed throughout both books. 

The story is complete enough and backstory recapped succinctly such that someone could probably pick up this book without having read the first one and have a good experience. It'll definitely be better for anyone reading the whole duology, but the recaps at the beginning are well done and the story can stand alone enough to makes sense. 

The main plot alternates at first between Ayla in Queen Junn's court and Crier on the road, eventually merging the two threads when Ayla also has to travel. Their individual goals complement each other, but they have different pieces of the puzzle that a bunch of people are trying to solve, and don't realize it at first. 

I originally had misgivings about this as an oppressor/oppressed romance, but I waited to see how things ended up. I'm so pleased about the choice to address the systemic inequalities rather than just having Ayla and Crier defy the odds or something. Even better, IRON HEART makes it clear that they aren't the first Automa/human couple and they won't be the last. They individually join up with existing efforts to solve the problems, not trying to reinvent the networks that other people have put in place over years. Also, Crier and Ayla have unique access to specific information, and particular connections with others that let them do what they're doing, but a bunch of other people's specific efforts are highlighted throughout. It makes them feel like people who happened to be in a position to do something to help, not destined heroes whose presence magically fix things it shouldn't have fixed. 

Graphic/Explicit CW for blood, violence.

Moderate CW for grief, panic attacks/disorders, excrement, injury detail, medical content, medical trauma, fire/fire injury, murder, death.

Minor CW for sexual content, drug use, vomit, cannibalism, self harm, parental death, child death.

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