Ink, Iron, and Glass

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
Ink, Iron, and Glass Book Poster Image
Science, romance, alt-history mix in genre-bending tale.

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Kids say

age 9+
Based on 1 review

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Set in an alternative, Victorian-era Italy, Ink, Iron, and Glass has enough drama, intrigue, and cultural references (e.g. opera, Fresnel lenses, famous French authors) to make many readers want to learn more about what actually happened in that period. Author Gwendolyn Clare is a scientist and academic, and along the way her characters use real, detailed science, such as chemistry to create a breathing device in airless environments in order to escape dangerous situations. The rich language assumes the reader is familiar with words like the art term "chiaroscuro."

Positive Messages

Strong messages about pursuing knowledge and using it for good; also friendship, courage, quick thinking, and doing your best with unexpected responsibility. There's some quiet consideration of diversity issues, as when dark-skinned Elsa (everyone in her world is dark-skinned) feels conspicuous among all the white-skinned Europeans. Gender equality is more assumed than asserted as strong male and female characters young and old have remarkable powers and work together -- though dynastic marriage is a big deal in this version of Italy.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Elsa starts out single-minded, determined, and socially clueless (coming from a different world and not really having any friends), but learns to be a good friend and team member, as well as to deal responsibly with new, terrifying powers. Love interest Leo is emotionally scarred by family tragedy and betrayal, but struggles to do the right thing and protect his loved ones in impossible situations. Pitted against a mysterious, powerful villain, they, their friends, and their adult mentors test their skills and strengths to the breaking point trying to save their worlds and loved ones.


The murder of one kid's family members and the kidnapping of another's. Deadly intrigue and spectacular killing in and out of wartime. Assassins try to wreck a train, and other characters are killed (though in a number of cases they're not quite as dead as they'd have you believe). In the past, a teen character breaks a servant's arm in a violent beating. Guns and swordplay are important in the plot, and one scene involves a creature electrocuting another. In this universe, the 19th century Papal States are in the habit of beheading scientists and engineers for heresy.


Coming from a much less formal world, Elsa is amused by the prudish ways of her Earth friends, who are shocked when she reveals her legs in the course of an adventure. She and her love interest exchange a couple of intense kisses and close contact (like getting devices out of each other's pockets in close quarters), but it goes no further. Strong implication that one adult character was in a same-sex couple with another who's now dead. One plot thread deals with the author of a virtual world making its women pregnant without consulting them.


Rare "damn," "hell," "goddamned," "bloody," "bastard."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A teen character deals with bad news by getting drunk -- and having an epic hangover for the next day's adventures.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Ink, Iron, and Glass is the first book in a planned two-part series by scientist, science fiction writer, and first-time novelist Gwendolyn Clare. Set in an alternate-universe, divided 19th-century Italy in which Garibaldi's unification efforts failed, it's a clever mashup of genres (steampunk! science fiction! historical fiction! gaming! virtual worlds!) and well-worn themes (teens who don't know each other forced to work together; being the new kid in school; villains bent on world domination; fictional characters rising against their creators...) into an exciting, snarky read with a ripple of romance,  a hefty dose of science, life lessons aplenty, and a cliffhanger ending. There's a bit of romantic tension and two intense kisses between the 16-year-old protagonists; also a lot of violence, from politically power-mad assassins to swordplay, stabbings, and mechanical monsters. A teen character drowns his sorrows in wine and pays the price with an epic hangover. Occasional "hell," "damn," "goddamn," "bastard."

User Reviews

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Teen, 13 years old Written byParrotMan May 19, 2018

This book is so boring.

This book was the generic stereotype of a badly written teenage love story. The romance in this book was completely fake, and it was so boring that the toughest... Continue reading

What's the story?

As INK, IRON, AND GLASS opens, 16-year-old Elsa is looking forward to more responsibility for her native Veldana, a "scribed" (authored) world her scriptologist mother has succeeded in making independent of its Earth creator and enhancing ever since. But after her mother is abducted and her work stolen, Elsa travels to Earth to get her back. Landing in an alternate version of 19th-century Italy, she quickly finds herself in the Casa della Pazzia, an unusual (and sentient) dwelling where the Order of Archimedes keeps "mad" kids, i.e. those with genius skills in scriptology, alchemy, or mechanics, to keep them safe from the Church, which wants to kill them, and ambitious political leaders, who want to use their skills to grab power. Elsa, it turns out, is good at all three specialties, which makes her a really big target. It's a lot for her to take in, even without tragic, good-looking Leo in the picture.

Is it any good?

Clockwork bugs, swordplay, alchemy, flamethrowers, monster machines, virtual reality, politics, romance -- you've seen it all before, but rarely in such a genre-bending gallop to the cliff's edge. Ink, Iron, and Glass takes readers to a steampunk-ish 19th century Italy where history's taken a different turn, an arch-villain has his own plans on the subject, and a girl from another world finds herself dealing with romance in this one:

"He was like a fine piece of clockwork that had been carelessly dropped too many times, the delicate gears jarred apart so they spun and spun but never connected. Broken. ... Oh, how she itched to open his chest and set the gears straight again. The thought surprised her; she'd often felt the urge to fix objects, but this sudden desire to fix a person ... where did that come from?"

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about stories where fictional characters interact with real ones, as they do in Ink, Iron, and Glass. What's the appeal of this device? 

  • Ink, Iron, and Glass speculates about what would have happened if Garibaldi hadn't united Italy in the 19th century.  Can you come up with a story about how things might be different if a particular historical event had gone a different way?

  • If someone came to our world from a virtual or fictional one, what do you think they'd find hardest to deal with?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love fantasy and historical fiction

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