Kara Dalkey,
Steel Rose
(Roc, 1997)

Dalkey's Steel Rose has a lot in common with novels such as War For the Oaks by Emma Bull and Charles de Lint's Jack of Kinrowan. All take place in real cities -- Minneapolis, Ottawa and, in this case, Pittsburgh. All feature a young woman who brushes up against the world of Faerie, and in all, she is caught up in the conflict between the Seelie and the Unseelie courts.

Here's where Steel Rose makes a departure from the others. T.J. Kamenski, student and struggling performance artist, manages to summon up two curious creatures. Their appearance is quite unintentional -- or so it seems. They offer to help her with her next show and even pack the house -- it's a tough offer to refuse.It turns out that the creatures -- she calls them Ralph and Norton because their names in their own language are unpronounceable -- are "knockers" or "tommyknockers" of the faerie folk who help out in mines and mills and farms. They also happen to be part of the Unseelie Court and the alleged nemesis of the Sidhe. T.J. finds that she is aligned with them in a battle for Pittsburgh; as the daughter of a steelworker who committed suicide after the steel mills shut down, she is sympathetic to Ralph and Norton's cause -- at first.

T.J.'s performance does draw a crowd -- a crowd of Sidhe. Eventually, they strike back, particularly through the actions of one known as the Amadan. By the time the actual battle is pitched, however, T.J. doesn't want to be on either side. She wants to belong to herself.

T.J.'s development from a shy and self-centered victim to a capable and independent young woman is one of the most important elements of the story, and it is very subtly portrayed. By the end of the novel, you are convinced that she is able to cope with whatever comes her way. She is not the easiest character to like, certainly, but you come to not only like but respect her.

The conflict between the Seelie and Unseelie courts is not one of "good" and "evil" but rather one of territory: the Sidhe want to return Pittsburgh to fields and forests while the Unseelie want to reopen the closed mines and mills. Neither goal bodes well for ordinary mortals. T.J. understands that the answer is not that simple, that you can't just go back to the way things were. Rather, you need to find the path that best suits the circumstances. She becomes the steel rose of the title, combining strength and beauty, that which is crafted and that which is of nature.

Dalkey is a lively writer and an entrancing storyteller, creating characters you care about who are playing out an exciting and engrossing story. She makes you think without lecturing as well as entertains you. Steel Rose is a book well worth reading more than once, and Dalkey earns a well deserved spot on any bookshelf with this title, the first in a series of contemporary fantasy novels set in various United States cities.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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