Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Annual 2014. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.
“There’s nothing wrong with being scared. It only means something important is at stake.”
After the death of her mother, sixteen year old Wen must move to Gochan One, the huge factory slaughterhouse where her father is the resident doctor. The factory complex is cold and unwelcoming, and apparently haunted by the Ghost, a worker who met his end on the killing floor, and now grants wishes to the factory workers who leave offerings at his altar. In order to meet the demand for meat for the Itanyai’s feasting season, the factory bosses have hired a band of Noor, wild, brutal men from a territory occupied by the Itanyai for almost a thousand years. When one of the Noor humiliates Wen, she makes a wish to the Ghost she does not believe in, with unexpected consequences. Haunted by the results of her wish, Wen tries to protect the Noor from the brutal conditions of the factory, only to find herself alienated from her own people, and drawn to Melik, leader of the Noor.
In this retelling of The Phantom of the Opera, Wen finds herself caught between the Ghost of Gochan One, and Melik, the leader of the Noor. The addition of the class conflict gives Melik greater depth of character than Raoul, the slightly lacklustre love interest from The Phantom of the Opera. Wen is pulled in two directions by her Itanyai heritage, and her unexpected sympathy for the exploited Noor. She is caught in a complex relationship with her father, who tries to save everyone, but cannot protect himself, or his daughter, from the brutal realities of factory life. Sarah Fine layers interracial tension and class politics over a familiar story, and gives it a steampunk twist with her eerie factory setting. Wen also has to struggle with the problematic gender roles of her culture, which emphasizes a woman’s purity, and yet is quick to degrade it. With the exception of Wen’s father, few of the Itanyai characters have much depth, and are mainly characterized by their racism towards the Noor and their sexist attitudes. The atmosphere is tense, but the villains are one dimensional.
The conclusion to Of Metal and Wishes is open-ended, suggesting a sequel will follow. While the confined setting of the factory complex is well developed at the expense of Fine’s dystopian world, a sequel would have much more latitude to explore. The Itanyai culture is obviously Asian-influenced, but the history and traditions are sketched out only in the broadest strokes, Sarah Fine has penned a compelling love story, and added and an interesting twist to a beloved classic, but there is a great deal of room to take this story further.