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BOOK REVIEW: Hot Lead, Cold Iron by Ari Marmell

REVIEW SUMMARY: An immersive urban-fantasy/secret-history/noir-fantasy.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS:: Mick Oberon, PI, and exiled member of the Seelie Court, finds his faerie roots catching up to him in Gangster-Era Chicago with a case tying his people with dark doings among the mobster set.

PROS: Interesting protagonist; immersive and well researched period detail.
CONS: Overuse of jargon can be wearying.
BOTTOM LINE: An urban fantasy well-suited to lovers of historical fantasy, especially of Gangster-era Chicago.

Mick Oberon has the same sort of job as William Crane, Philip Marlowe, and Sam Spade. He’s a private eye, living in Gangster era Chicago. Capone is recently off the streets, and the internecine power struggles that were tempered by the rule of Capone are simmering under the less-controlling hand of Frank Nitti. Even in the Depression there is plenty of work to be had for a Private Eye with an edge, and since Mick Oberon has pointed ears and a wand instead of a tommy gun, he most certainly has an edge. When a simple missing persons case turns out to be tied to the Seelie Court he left long ago, and may precipitate a war between gangs in the bargain, Oberon is going to need all the edge he can get.

Hot Lead, Cold Iron is a novel by Ari Marmell, first in a series set in a secret fantastical history of Chicago during the Prohibition era. Magic exists, and Faerie and the otherworld exist. Other supernatural creatures clearly also exist, as we get a glimpse at a lycanthrope. For the most part, however, the vast majority of the human population has no idea that the supernatural world exists. Mick might be eccentric in his loadout with a wand instead of a gun, and he might recover from a beating far faster than any human could, but to the overwhelming number of people in the world, he is just a human private investigator…even if he does have a strange prevalence for drinking milk instead of illegal spirits or beer.

The period research and detail is a strong foundational pillar of Hot Lead, Cold Iron. The author has taken a lot of care in crafting gangster-era Chicago. The novel is a secret fantastical history of the period, rather than an alternate history with magic. The story thus has to hew as closely to real events, real people and a real Chicago as much as possible. Leveraging the political setup of the period and having the story set post-Capone (despite Capone being such a compelling character) provides a lot more narrative freedom in terms of the power struggles inside the underworld of Chicago. I think that was absolutely the right choice here. Beyond that political framework, the novel lives and breathes in its setting, and I was immersed as a reader into the time period and setting most effectively.

While its understandable and dead-on for the humans of the era to speak in heavy slang and dialect, I am undecided on the matter of the heavy use of jargon by Mick himself. The story drops the reader right into period speech and slang, and Mick, despite his nature, behaves in that manner as enthusiastically as his human compatriots. Thinking on the world building, it sort of makes sense. The Faerie are great imitators of human culture and human forms, better imitators than creators on their own right. Are Oberon’s speech patterns, then, a natural faerie consequence of spending time in Prohibition-era Chicago? Even as ageless as he is, do his speech patterns continually morph and evolve over time, rather than being more fixed in his origins and “set in his ways”? Its a bit of ethnography and world building that the narrative doesn’t address, but it was something I was thinking of throughout the book.

More generally, the character of Mick Oberon is a well drawn, sympathetic, first-person perspective protagonist. He is at times extremely human and at other times clearly and distinctly inhuman. As a faerie with a weakness for iron living in a technologically rapidly advancing world, Mick has weaknesses and problems that most humans can’t imagine. In some cases, it feels a bit odd to allow Mick to operate at all in 1930’s Chicago. However, I liked some of the small touches in his character–his unfamiliarity with charging for money, rather than for other things (sometimes random and strange things) feels very faerie indeed. It dovetails into the plot, which, in traditional detective noir fashion, requires Oberon to come up with a sum of money on short notice that he doesn’t have. Not because he’s drunk it all away or lost at the ponies, or lost it to a dangerous woman, but rather because he hasn’t been always charging his clients on a cash basis.

The Seelie/Unseelie Otherworld of Elphame is another highlight in the novel. The aforementioned tendency for the faerie to imitate humans not only extends to slang, but to social and physical structures as well. When Oberon returned to the Otherworld, I had expected a more traditional setting, perhaps with castles, sacred groves or other features of “Celtic dark age fantasy”. Instead, the Faeries of this world have an otherworld Chicago very much like its real world counterpart, with the noble titles of the Seelie and Unseelie Courts transmorgified into Prohibition era counterparts and equivalents. Oh, there are barrows, but they are barrows with skyscrapers towering above them, along with most of the comforts of the real world Chicago. Just don’t mind the human slave population. Some things and traditions among the Seelie really don’t ever change. Instead of looking up a Duke or Baron of Faerie, Mick has to go see a Judge to work on his case. The Unseelie, no surprise, take on organized crime titles and trappings. Mick couldn’t wait to leave every time he visited, but I highly enjoyed seeing the Seelie in their natural habitat almost as much as period Chicago.

Guns, wands, gangsters and Faeries. Hot Lead, Cold Iron is not a world-changing book, but it’s an extremely entertaining historical/urban fantasy that I read quickly and eagerly.

About Paul Weimer (366 Articles)
Not really a Prince of Amber, but rather an ex-pat New Yorker that has found himself living in Minnesota, Paul Weimer has been reading SF and Fantasy for over 30 years and exploring the world of roleplaying games for over 25 years. Almost as long as he has been reading and watching movies, he has enjoyed telling people what he has thought of them. In addition to SF Signal, he can be found at his own blog, Blog Jvstin Style, Skiffy and Fanty, SFF Audio, Twitter, and many other places on the Internet!

1 Comment on BOOK REVIEW: Hot Lead, Cold Iron by Ari Marmell

  1. Nice review, Paul. I’m now glad Santa brought this one to me.

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