An unstoppable love between two girls—one human, one Made—both set on destroying the Iron Heart.
For too long the cruel, beautiful Automae have lorded over the kingdom of Rabu, oppressing the humans who live there. But the human revolution is on the rise, and at its heart is Ayla. Once handmaiden, now fugitive, Ayla escaped the palace of Lady Crier, the girl Ayla had planned to kill… but instead fell in love with. Now Ayla has pledged her allegiance to Queen Junn, whom she believes can accomplish the ultimate goal of the human rebellion: destroy the Iron Heart. Without it, the Automae will be weakened to the point of extinction.
But playing at Ayla’s memory are the powerful feelings she developed for Crier. And unbeknownst to her, Crier has also fled the palace, taking up among travelling rebels, determined to find and protect Ayla.
As their paths collide, neither are prepared for the dark secret underlying the Iron Heart.
In this stunning sequel to acclaimed author Nina Varela’s Crier’s War, the love that launched a revolution must now pave the way for a whole new era… and the ultimate change of heart.
Oh this book wrecked me, friends.
Sequels are tricky to do right — I’ve read one too many disappointing follow-up books in my time — but I’m delighted to report that this book was everything I had hoped for in a sequel to one of my favorite books of 2019. Reading this book felt like diving headfirst into a half-forgotten world that grew ever-familiar by the page, felt like a rush of warmth. By the end of the book, I’d fallen fully in love with Nina’s writing once again, as well as the characters that struggled and fought and loved within the pages of the story. I’m very excited to share this review with you all today, as well as a short fanart comic I made of my absolute favorite quote from the book!
A huge thank you to Caffeine Book Tours for having me on this blog tour! It’s always such a pleasure. You can find the tour schedule here, and check out all the other incredible feature posts currently up as well!
Digital ARC provided in exchange for an honest review. This doesn’t affect my opinion on the book in any way, the book is just good.
A War Fought by Real People in the Quiet
Here is where we find the characters at the beginning of the story: Ayla is a fugitive, fleeing to Varn (where rules Junn the Mad Queen) after escaping the palace of Crier, having failed her ultimate goal of killing the Sovereign’s daughter. Crier, desolate in Ayla’s absence and left with seemingly nowhere to turn, is still betrothed to Kinok — enigmatic and conspiratorial leader of the Anti-Reliance Movement, founded on the ideals of the Automae birthright to rule with the dream of building cities in which only Automae can survive in. Things, generally, don’t look great.
I’ve always found one of the most compelling aspects of this series to be the fact that it explores very grand ideas with quiet, personal stories. We care about the war between humans and Automae not simply because it’s the central conflict in the text, but also because it precipitates so much of the interpersonal strife between Crier and Ayla: they cannot be together because of the long history of oppression and animosity between the two races. The girls are separated here for a good portion of the book, but each is finding their own answer to ending the war, and the question of what life will look like after.
As the war builds, so too do its stakes — we are introduced to several other characters in Iron Heart who show us a different facet of the war and its impact, from human vigilante survivors to loyal supporters of Kinok’s ideals. I find it remarkable that all of these minor characters were made significant by their unique relationship to the conflict and the surrounding kingdoms; positions from which they also derived thematic purpose in the narrative. Not a moment feels wasted in this book, even as we navigate through quieter moments to get to the final showdown between our protagonists and Kinok. The pacing was absolutely perfect.
Faerie Stories and Stolen Histories
Like the first book, Iron Heart is told in alternating POV chapters from both Crier and Ayla. I could probably write a whole essay analysis on the fascinating duality inherent in the contrast between their individual narratives, but the one that stands out to me the most at the moment is this one.
In the first book, Crier, having grown up sheltered and privileged as the Sovereign’s daughter, starts out knowing more about the faerie stories in her books than the reality of the world around her. Ayla, orphaned by the Automae conflict at a very young age, entered the palace for the sole, angry purpose of seeking revenge — but then finds her own mystery to solve in the form of her heritage and the locket left to her by a grandmother she never knew. These mysteries continue in the second book, with renewed purpose.
And! I just love that we get to explore this world through:
- flashbacks to Ayla’s parents’ memories, stored in the locket
- Crier’s own faerie stories that she adapts and retells for Ayla
- little ephemera from the narrative — pamphlets, letters, etc
Ayla’s family history and Crier’s fairytales, in particular, lend an almost “story within a story” quality to the entire book. Aside from being one of my favorite narrative devices, I greatly enjoyed the fact that they also carried purpose in the war! Ayla’s stories illuminate points in history that have been written over and stolen by Automae reign, and Crier’s stories contextualise some of the worldbuilding and significance behind important locations. That Nina wove such a compelling story incorporating all of these elements in the sequel to her debut is such an achievement. And speaking of the writing…
Oh, the Sapphic Romance, the Yearning
I tweeted this when I first read Crier’s War back in 2019, and I still stand by it.
The series is very much an exploration of war, conflict, and what it means to find something worth fighting for — but it’s also about two girls hopelessly wound around each other and, in Iron Heart, how tender they can be when they don’t have to be enemies. And, friends, it is truly during the stunning romantic moments between Crier and Ayla that Nina’s prose soars.
My heart ached reading this book, friends. It really did. There’s a small scene in which Ayla and Crier enact a beloved romance trope in order to con an Automae noble into giving them heartstone, and throughout the entirety of that scene I just wanted to cry at the tenderness and the beauty of it all.
Honestly, I don’t know how I’ll ever go back to mediocre non-queer romances now that I’ve read lines like the ones in the book. I won’t list too many specific ones here because I believe you should experience them for yourself, but I made a little comic of my favorite quote from the book just so you can see what I mean.
Skye’s Fanart Comic!
This comic format was heavily inspired by Madeleine Jubilee Saito’s poetry comics! Please check them out.
MY CONCLUSION: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Really, what my review comes down to is this: If you love Crier’s War, rest assured that this sequel honors everything that came before it: all the plot threads and themes, all the longing and heart. It ties together the story competently and neatly with satisfying conclusions for all the characters we’ve come to love and root for.
If you haven’t had the opportunity to check out Crier’s War, or if you were waiting for the sequel to dive into the series, this duology now comes very, very high on my personal recommendation list. I hope you fall in love with these gay girls and this world as much as I did, and that it leaves you with that same tender-hearted optimism that we don’t fight our wars alone.
Is this book for you?
Premise in a sentence: Following the event of Crier’s War, Crier and Ayla are thrust into the midst of a burgeoning conflict both within and beyond the borders of the kingdom of Rabu, and must fight for the people and ideals they believe in, as well as each other’s love.
Perfect for: lovers of Crier’s War, tender sapphic romance, character-driven stories with light speculative elements, and lush, emotional prose
Think twice if: you haven’t read Crier’s War!
Genre: young adult, speculative fiction
Trigger/content warnings: war, ritual bloodletting, physical violence, drug use/addiction, mental illness (anxiety, panic attack), mental deterioration, body horror (undead, zombie-like), exsanguination. A more comprehensive list can be found here!
About the Author
Nina Varela is a nationally awarded writer of screenplays, short fiction, poetry, and novels. In May 2017, she graduated magna cum laude from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts with a BFA in Writing for Screen & Television. Crier’s War was her debut, and this is the sequel. She is originally from Durham, North Carolina, where she grew up on a hippie commune in the middle of the woods. She now lives in Los Angeles.
- Have you read Crier’s War or Iron Heart? How do you feel about it?
- What are your favorite f/f books?
- Do you have any book recommendations for other books that use the “story within a story” format?