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Cold Iron by Stina Leicht

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Fraternal twins Nels and Suvi move beyond their royal heritage and into military and magical dominion in this flintlock epic fantasy debut from a two-time Campbell Award finalist.

Prince Nels is the scholarly runt of the ancient Kainen royal family of Eledore, disregarded as flawed by the king and many others. Only Suvi, his fraternal twin sister, supports him. When Nels is ambushed by an Acrasian scouting party, he does the forbidden for a member of the ruling family: He picks up a fallen sword and defends himself. Disowned and dismissed to the military, Nels establishes himself as a leader as Eledore begins to shatter under the attack of the Acrasians, who the Kainen had previously dismissed as barbarians. But Nels knows differently, and with the aid of Suvi, who has allied with pirates, he mounts a military offensive with sword, canon, and what little magic is left in the world.
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Cold Iron is, Stina Leicht says in her afterword, the novel prompted by wondering what Lord of the Rings would have been like had Tolkein been American; leaving aside the vast disparity in length (Cold Iron isn’t much shorter than the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, and is only book one of a series) this is very much epic fantasy in the Tolkeinian mode, albeit with some clear and interesting departures from that model…

The first is in its protagonists; Cold Iron has three protagonists, rather than the whole team of Tolkein, each of whom has help from friends and subordinates, but neither of whom really functions as part of a team of equals. That two of those protagonists are female is more than a cosmetic departure from Tolkein, as is making only one of them a fighter; the other two (both of the women, unfortunately) have different skills, are required to fulfill different roles, and never have to learn to fight, albeit this is because they are insulated from that necessity by position rather than anything else. Nels is, inevitably, our least interesting protagonist; as a soldier he doesn’t get very involved in the political struggles and has the closest journey of any character to the archetypical epic fantasy hero, realising his mysterious power and having to make difficult choices for the good of his kingdom and the world at multiple turns.

Ilta and Suvi, though, are both more static characters, more engaged with diplomacy and politics directly; Ilta is sidelined for an awful lot of the novel and seems little more than a convenient repository of knowledge on multiple occasions, but has some interesting dilemmas about how to use her powers of healing and foresight in various contexts. Cold Iron‘s real star, though, is Suvi, even if the novel often seems not to realise that; a political character moving through various realms of skulduggery and diplomacy, learning how to be a ruler while discovering the compromises any ruler has to make and the sacrifices that must be made, she’s a character who really grows across the course of the book and whose actions actually seem to make a difference, as opposed to Ilta as an accidental catalyst and Nels providing little if any agency at all.

The plot is as slow as one might expect, with much of the book rendered pointless by its ending; Cold Iron sees the breaking and reforging of familial bonds, the rise and fall of Nels and Suvi as powerful, the faltering failure and subsequent repair of a romance between Ilta and Nels, and – the one thing that does change – the war between the Eledoreans and the Acrasians, humans to the southern border. That so much of the novel replicates the status quo ante bellum at its conclusion is unfortunate, because we’ve ploughed through 650 pages to get there; things have advanced, but in quite a rushed nature, and a large part of the early novel wasn’t advancing anything. Mind you, Leicht does give us a compelling ending, and those things that have moved have moved a lot; I’d’ve liked less jumping around in time and more of a focus on how things were changing that we see changed, because much of the action seems to take place in gaps between chapters, rather than before our eyes.

That’s not to say the writing isn’t good; for a book the length of this one, Cold Iron feels much shorter, with punchy, well-written chapters full of action (just rather episodic and often fizzling to nothing), and some excellent moments. The description avoids falling into the Tolkeinian trap of love of every tree, leaf and twig; rather, it gives us a world that is as full as we need it to be to imagine it clearly, and that allows the sections of Cold Iron where Leicht draws on horror tropes to really have a sense of terror and doom to them, of a strange Outside evil. It’s a well-captured world, without trying to reach too far into a total control of the reader’s imagination but directing it well and accurately.

The biggest problem with this book, though, is that we’re rooting for the villains. Cold Iron gives us as heroes a magical species whose royal family and others have a verbal command magic that can be used on anyone; while there are ethical rules around its actual use, these are established early on as frequently broken. Essentially, the kainen can – and do! – bypass consent; every character who can, does this at some point, and Leicht doesn’t seem to interrogate how problematic this is. The Acrasians, humans, don’t have but are affected by this magic, and that’s no small part of what drives them; unaccountable being who can completely control them against their will are an easy enemy to hate – but again: Leicht makes those beings the hero, and does so by simply (at least in this novel) waving away the issues of consent, of agency, that such magic inevitably gives rise to, while using it to prop up a monarchy and class system which is equally unquestioned.

Cold Iron is a bit of a bumpy ride, then, and one whose ultimate destination I at least am rather disturbed by; but Leicht’s characters are interesting and human, and her writing is generally good, so I’m likely to see where the next leg of the journey takes us… given the dramatically changed circumstances of the cast at the end of this novel, it’s sure to be interesting!


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