This is a world of magic in the process of transformation. A new world of science, technology and capitalism is encroaching on the old ways. Money is driving forward new ideas that challenge the established order. Centred on a group of brothers and sisters, the novel is set in a world were historic highly-technological civilizations have vanished. Their ruins promising wealth and power to those who can understand the surviving artifacts. But it is also a world where dangerous magic lies just out of the barely controlled borders.
I was most struck by the sense of change taking place in the book. Here's a sample that captures the mood, that could have been written about characters in the French Revolution,
Guis's family was the newer sort of aristocracy, Gelbion Kressind buying the manse from a bankrupt baronet some thirty years back.... His argument, often and vehemently aired, was that there was nothing special about the old money families. They had come from nothing, so why should they sneer at those newer to high rank who had come from nothing in their turn?In reality these new aristocrats were coming from industry and capitalism. The titular vessel is a project driven by one of the world's wealthiest individuals, but its a ship whose voyages will still take place within the magical realm dominated by the old order.
I was disappointed that the iron ship made little enough appearance in the novel, only being launched near the end. So I will have to wait for the follow up books, though hopefully they'll be edited with a touch more severity. But McKinley has created an interesting world, with well rounded characters (with some strong female roles as well as the obligatory male wizards and soldiers).