The Iron Thorn by Caitlin Kittredge was, frankly, a pleasant surprise – I was expecting something formulaic, riding the Steampunk popularity bandwagon, but the world Kittredge builds (a sort of alternate-history reality) is complete and compelling, and the story is classic Girls Underground.

Aoife, 15, lives in a harsh world of madness and monsters, in a Massachusetts city (called Lovecraft, and indeed there are many allusions to the great horror writer in this book) fueled by a giant engine of steam and gears. Her father is not in the picture, and her mother is in an asylum. A dangerous virus plagues the populace, turning the infected into vicious creatures or raving madmen, kept at bay only by the strict rule of the Rationalist government. When Aoife’s brother Conrad sends her a cryptic message, she runs away in search of him, venturing into the perilous places beyond the city. Her best friend Cal accompanies her, although he is constantly doubting the wisdom of the venture, and in fact Aoife’s very sanity as well – since the virus has already infiltrated her bloodline and is set to be triggered in her on her upcoming birthday. She also acquires a new companion and guide, Dean – who slowly becomes more important to her than just a hired hand.

After reaching her absent father’s home, she begins to discover the true story of her family, including hints that she has a special gift herself. One day she wanders away from the house and is taken by force, to a land called Thorn that is basically Faerie. There she meets her adversary, a “man” named Tremaine (although it is unusual for a Girl Underground to first meet her adversary halfway through the story). He informs her that it is her duty (which he will enforce with violence if she does not comply) to break a curse on Thorn and save his world – and in fact, she begins to come into her power shortly afterwards, making the task seem possible. In this way, she has two of the classic goals at once: saving a family member (her brother) and saving an entire world.

SPOILERS  To break the curse, Aoife travels back to Lovecraft and attempts to get to the heart of the Engine that runs the city. She is quickly captured, and learns more of the truth behind the lies of those in control. She also discovers the betrayal of one of her companions. Going literally underground for the final task, she completes her mission and has a final confrontation with Tremaine – but discovers that all her trials have only served to open a door that should have remained shut, and all hell is breaking loose because of it. While I realize that this is the first in a planned series and therefore not the “end” per se, I still thought it was a gutsy way to finish the story – failing to triumph over the adversary and instead bringing harm to her own world. Because not all stories have a happy ending.