Aranthur is a student. He showed a little magical talent, is studying at the local academy, and is nothing particularly special. Others are smarter. Others are more talented. Others are quicker to pick up techniques. But none of them are with him when he breaks his journey home for the holidays in an inn. None of them step in to help when a young woman is thrown off a passing stage coach into the deep snow at the side of the road. And none of them are drawn into a fight to protect her.
One of the others might have realised she was manipulating him all along . . .
A powerful story about beginnings, coming of age, and the way choosing to take one step towards violence can lead to a slippery and dangerous slope, this is an accomplished fantasy series driven by strong characters and fast-paced action.
Cold Iron is the first book in the new “Masters and Mages” series from Miles Cameron, author of the Traitor Son Cycle.
Coming into this book, I was mostly familiar with Cameron through reputation only. I’d heard that the Traitor Son Cycle was a great fantasy series, but I’d never experienced his books for myself. You guys know how those TBRs can be.
But after reading Cold Iron, I wish I’d made time to read some of Miles Cameron’s books much earlier.
Cold Iron is a bit of a throwback to classical farmboy fantasy. Our main character is Aranthur, who leaves his simple, rural life behind to study languages, philosophy, and even a little magik at the academy in his local city. We first meet Aranthur as he prepares to travel home to spend a holiday with his family. On the way, he stumbles into some trouble which introduces him to a circle of people whom he was previously unfamiliar with.
What’s interesting about this book is that it feels like a classical fantasy story, but with modern tastes and sensibilities in mind. It’s aware of the criticisms that were (and still are) thrown at the farmboy books of yesteryear, and takes steps to address them. Even just considering the way in which Aranthur gets tied up in the plot of this novel: he isn’t a chosen one, and he’s not even the smartest or most talented in his academy. He just happened to be in the wrong place at the right time.
Aranthur is a likeable and relatable character, but not without his flaws. His relatability is a little reminiscent of Kvothe from Pat Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles—in that amongst all the epic and fantastical happenings (and coping with antagonistic and casual racism), Aranthur still has to work a part-time job in order pay rent. Between coursework, work-work, and the trials and tribulations of being a fantasy protagonist… Aranthur just doesn’t have much time to think about anyone but himself. By necessity (or so he thinks), he’s more than a little selfish.
Plot-wise, Aranthur gets dragged into a world which he knows very little about. He meets people from every echelon of society—from drug-addicts to nobility to emperors—and forms unique and engaging relationships. Unfortunately for him, he also becomes involved in the politics that some of these relationships bring with them. He is made aware of a mysterious and powerful “Master” who is said to be at the head of a political conspiracy that threatens war and magical terrorism.
The world of Cold Iron struck me as late-medieval, early-renaissance. Guns are starting to appear, but the main weapons used in combat are still swords, spears, crossbows, and the like. Aranthur is learning to use the sword, and so there is a good number of action-heavy swordfights and duels for those who like that kind of thing.
Something which really stuck out about Cold Iron was the variety of roles which women played. It is a very common and very valid criticism of older farmboy fantasy novels that women characters are often relegated to love interests, courtesans, or the local innkeeper’s wife. Actually, there are characters who fit those descriptions in this book, but the point is that they aren’t confined to them. Women can just as easily be badass swordswomen, super-powerful mages, or intelligent generals and academics.
As a whole, Cold Iron is a very enjoyable book which manages to feel both familiar and fresh. I was intrigued by the world and the characters, and I’m invested in the plot to the extent that I’ll be picking up the sequel as soon as I can get my grubby paws on it.
If you like books with rich worlds, engaging action scenes, and relatable but flawed protagonists, I’d suggest that you pick this one up.
Thank you to Gollancz, who provided a copy of this book via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.