REVIEW: “Iron Aria” by A. Merc Rustad

Review of A. Merc Rustad, “Iron Aria”, Podcastle: 518 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

A fantasy of ecological catastrophe and the need for skills and approaches outside the default to heal the land. Kyru has a talent for speaking with metals. He might have spent his life simply as an excellent blacksmith, except for the part where flaws in a dam threaten to destroy his entire community when it fails and no one else can sense the looming peril the way he can. Both the problem and its solution are conveyed in the impressionistic experiences of the protagonist–although told in the third person, it has a very first-person feel to the point of view. I loved the imaginative worldbuilding and poetic language used to describe it.

This next bit is more of a meta-commentary on storytelling within our particular present moment and is only slightly relevant to the content of the story. There’s another entire layer to this work, separate from the functional man-against-nature plot, involving non-default identities and negotiating how to exist in a world not designed for you.

Two central characters are trans and their recognition of each other’s experience is a key part of their bond. The protagonist is also neuro-atypical, which is tied in with–though not equated with–his unusual metal-sensing/healing skills. The ways in which these aspects are integrated into the story point up some of the awkwardness of our current balance point with regard to representing non-default identities in fiction. We aren’t yet at a stage where representation can be successful simply by casual and neutral inclusion because–to many observers–that approach can feel a bit too similar to erasure. It’s perfectly possible to write a story featuring a trans character where their transness is never explicitly addressed because it’s not relevant to the plot, but at our current moment in the cultural timeline, it’s hard to count that as representation.

All of this is to say that, within the context of the storytelling, it felt to me that the communication of both trans identity and neuro-atypicality were over-telegraphed within the story and that the over-telegraphing interrupted the flow of the storyline. But at the same time, I recognize that dialing those narrative aspects back to a level that wouldn’t have felt overdone would have made it possible (perhaps even likely) for a majority of readers/listeners to miss them entirely. I see what the author is trying to do, and I appreciate the approach, and at the same time I would have loved to see how this story could be told in a context where the potential presence of those aspects of character identity could be more taken for granted rather than needing to be fronted in the way they were here.

Originally published in Fireside Fiction.

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