Published August 2015 by Open Road Integrated Media
At the centre of this novel is the titular Irona, a young woman who comes of age in the seven hundredth year after the founding of the kingdom of Benign. As the novel progresses, the reader follows Irona throughout her life as she advances into the political and military leadership of Benign’s government. It takes a longitudinal approach to life, which is a refreshing change from many YA novels; instead of focusing on a moment of intergenerational conflict, or a key turning point in history, it follows a single individual from childhood. In doing so, we get to become familiar with the character of Irona, and how the internal and external conflicts that surround her shape her from a young innocent to a mature, complex hero.
One of the most interesting aspects of the story deals with the world of Benign that Duncan has created. Benign is ruled by a council of what could best be called philosopher kings, with one 16-year-old being chosen into a lifetime of rulership every year. The council of 70, as they’re called, can exercise complete control over the economic and military life of Benign, but like the senate of the ancient Rome that inspired the novel’s setting, it’s a viper’s nest of competing political interests and cliques that can only be navigated by the deftest of political warriors. While the more traditional fantasy elements of the book (and there definitely are many) provide an interesting backdrop to the story, Irona’s attempts to navigate the world of intrigue and backstabbing provide much of the most interesting elements of the story.
The main challenge of reading a book like Irona 700 is that the strengths of it are often the weaknesses. The political world established by Duncan is absolutely fascinating, and at times it feels like the main plot takes away from it – a more interesting story could be told there than maintaining such a singular focus on Irona herself. Likewise, the look at Irona’s life takes an interesting, long-term and objective approach, but Duncan’s commitment to that objectivity prevents us from gaining a truly intimate or familiar understanding of her as a person. At times the book feels like it’s more of an after-the-fact biography of the protagonist, rather than her actual story (an admittedly fine distinction). These minor quibbles hold the story back from being truly great, but themselves remain an intricate part of how the story unfolds.
Worth noting, as well, is one specific incident in the plot that some readers may take issue with – the use of the “rape as plot device” trope that far too many novels with female protagonists feel it necessary to include. It’s there, and it sticks out as an odd moment in the events of the plot, but the rest of the story is told strongly enough that it manages to overcome cliché.
At first glance, Irona 700 appears to be a fairly straightforward and familiar tale of a young hero born into obscurity, only to be given an opportunity for greatness due to an unlikely turn of events. However, the characterization of the protagonist and the interesting world-building manage to create a story that is interesting and thought-provoking.
(Note: the publisher of this novel graciously provided an ARC of it for review purposes via Netgalley).