BRIEF SYNOPSIS:: A pair of fraternal twins struggle to preserve their Fae kingdom from threats internal, external, and even worse.
PROS: An excellent trio of central characters; strong exploration of interesting themes.
CONS: Worldbuilding sometimes feel too sketched-in, too slight.
BOTTOM LINE: Stina Leicht, whose previous books were historical/urban fantasy, makes a promising turn to epic fantasy.
Cold Iron is a Stina Leicht’s first high epic fantasy novel. (Her previous two novels — Of Blood and Honey and From Blue Skies from Pain — were historical urban fantasy set in the 1970’s.) It offers a full-scale flintlock fantasy world in which a a pair of young scions (Prince Nels and Princess Suvi) stretch beyond their royal heritage and into relams both military and magical.
Nels and Suvi are the fraternal twin children of the King Henrik Ilmari, ruler of Eledore, a land populated by a magic-using Fae race called the Kainen. Eledore is not in the best of states, if not positively rotten. For one thing, the King’s brother, already running much of the country, is plotting his full ascension to the throne, a plan for which the King seems content to allow. For another, there is an ongoing war with the humans, although the magnitude of their power to wage war (especially the provenance of their firearms) is somewhat unclear. There’s also the plight of Ilta, the granddaughter of the Silmaililla (the kingdom’s strongest magic user) and also her apprentice and heir. Ilta, who acts as both healer and magic-worker, is soon is thrust into taking more and more of her Gran’s workload, and also deal with her relationship with the twins, especially with Nels.
Cold Iron is strongest when it considers the issues of power. All three of the point-of-view characters — Nels, Suvi and Ilta — face hard choices, important responsibilities, unexpected roles and the consequences of the paths they take. There is a real sense of contemplating the use of power in the novel. It forces readers to ask: What’s the best use of temporal and magical power? What is ethical and right? For what should the power be used? Or not used? These issues are also combined with themes of free will and autonomy, lending them even more weight. The book is enriched all the more for showing how the characters’ exercise their power and handle the resulting consequences.
The world building around the Kainen and their mind control magic– particularly the names, geography, and culture — seems based on a Finnish Scandinavia society. While there are enough lakes to make a freshwater navy a practical branch of the armed forces of Eledore, there are correspondingly enough jagged mountains that give the terrain a more Norwegian, jagged feel than the flatness that evokes Finland. The Elf-like Kainen feel less like Tolkenian elves and much more like Eldren from that Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion stories. The parallels to that novel continue in that the humans in Cold Iron are engaged in a violent conflict with their non-human neighbors, and have greater technology at their command: their use of firearms. Nels’ experiments and interest notwithstanding, the Kainen are technologically inferior to their human neighbors.
The novel is at its weakest when it comes to that very same world building. Again and again, we get incompleteness, hints, and a thinness of the world as shown. Sometimes the world feels a bit “cardboard”. It isn’t populated enough, for example. I think a perspective from one of the sea-going Waterborne (Dylan, for instance) would have gone a long way to helping flesh out that otherwise fascinating portion of the world. Or perhaps a human perspective would have helped. (The end of the novel contains a hint that the Cold Iron‘s sequel, Blackthorne, will give readers exactly that.) A couple more of the accoutrements of a Tolkienian epic fantasy, a dramatis personae, for example, would have been welcome, especially given the unexplored complexity of the world. I’d love to read an appendix of stuff about this complex world to experience it even more.
Cold Iron is a book I acquired both in physical and ebook formats. The publisher (Saga Press) has provided lavish attention on the physical form; it has a beautiful pair of maps with corner decoration on the pages, which really work well to orient the reader given the complicated geography of this world. Deckled edges on the pages and a hefty weight help reinforce the “proper epic fantasy” feel of the book. Aesthetics aside, it’s the strength of Cold Iron‘s characters, the author’s steady hand in exploring themes of power in this rich world — even given the problems I had with the world building — that have me well-invested in this compelling new world. I strongly look forward to continuing the story.