Sunday, October 4, 2015

Cold Iron - Stina Leicht

A few years ago I read Stina Leicht's début Of Blood and Honey (2011) and I liked it very much. The book, which is an urban fantasy set in Northern Ireland in the 1970s,  did get a bit of criticism for not getting all the details right. It didn't bother me, probably because I am not familiar with the region in that much detail. For some reason I never got around to reading the sequel, And Blue Skies from Pain (2012), even though I do own a copy. I should remedy that sometime. In Cold Iron, Leicht strikes out in another direction. The novel is a flintlock fantasy, set in a secondary world and the first part of a series. It will definitely have an appeal for the epic fantasy reader but not necessarily for people who liked Of Blood and Honey.

For centuries the ruling class of the kingdom of Eledore has relied on their magic to defeat their enemies. Their magic is what raises them above humans and what determines their status in society. Humans may not have magic, their technology is more advanced and firearms appear to be a match for magic. The king of Eledore, heavily influenced by his younger brother, sticks to the traditional way of running his army. His children however, realize that without embracing new technology the kingdom is lost. A long and dangerous struggle to save the kingdom begins.

The world Leicht has created seems to be mostly inspired by Scandinavia. Most of the Eledoreans have Finnish sounding names. There are more than a few characters with Swedish sounding names as well. The story is an interesting reversal of history. Where in our 18th century, the Swedes ruled Finland (until a wave of Finnish nationalism dislodged the Swedes in the early 19th century only to be replaced by the Russians as rulers), the characters with the Finnish sounding names seem to be in control in the early stages of the novel. I'm not entirely sure if there is a particular work or event that inspired Leicht to create this setting. If there is, I didn't recognize it.

Leicht tells her story from three different points of view. The disgraced royal son Nels, who failed to develop any appreciable magical talents and got his hands bloodied in a skirmish. He is forced into a career in the military, where more than a few officers would see him die for king and country sooner rather than later. His twin sister Suvi, now heir-apparent, is the second point of view character. She has a better head for politics and tries to limit her uncle's influence on the court. The third point of view is that of Ilta. She is a talented healer, destined to take over as one of the most important advisors to the crown. She struggles with the weight of responsibility however.

The Kingdom of Eledore feels like a lot of mighty states in epic fantasy do. It's old, rich and decadent, led by a king who is not particularly interested in affairs of state and unreasonably certain that magic will overcome any obstacle. Leicht shows us the limitations of that magic early in the novel and keeps doing it throughout the story. It is terrible, could be wielded very effectively, but it also has drawbacks. The technology this magic is going up against is fairly rudimentary. The firearms are single shot rifles, using gunpowder and balls instead of cartridges. The same goes for the unwieldiy cannon. They are not all that reliable, nor very accurate and leave the user defenceless in the time it takes to reload. And yet they are the future and the younger characters in the book see it clearly.

Personally I would have liked to see a point of view of someone who was a bit more invested in the old ways. The three point of view characters have a very clear view of where things are going and show us the story more or less from the same side of the conflict. The main antagonist in the story, the king's brother Sakari, makes for a shallow character because we don't get to see much beyond his thirst for power. The king himself is similarly shallow. A bit more conflict between the main characters might do the next novel in the series good.

The story is told in short, snappy chapters. Cold Iron weighs in at 657 pages in hardcover but it feels like a much shorter book. It is one of those novels where you can easily read 200 pages in a sitting, or read it over the weekend. She keeps the pace up and doesn't bother the reader with too much background material on her world. This does have the drawback that some elements in the world are not as clear to the reader as one might wish for. I have no idea what caused the war between Eledore and its neighbour for instance. It might have made the intrigue at the Eledorean court more interesting if that had been a factor. Not everybody can be as closed to the outside world as the king.

The title of the series is The Malorum Gates and this refers to another layer in the story. The characters are mostly distracted by the immediate demands of the war but there is an ancient evil in the world that needs attention too. Ilta in particular is aware of it. We do not learn much about it, other than that magic is the key to containing the horrible creatures hiding behind the gates. Magic therefore, cannot be replaced by technology without putting the world at risk. This part is clearly the overarching story for the series. Instead of one replacing the other, as you'd find in  many fantasy novels, in this series the two are condemned to each other and not all the characters realize it yet.

Cold Iron is a fun, fast read but as the opening novel of a new series it is perhaps not as convincing as it might have been. There are a lot of interesting elements to the story but, in this first book at least, they don't link up yet. A little bit of detail in some places would have made it a bit more coherent. Leicht has a lot of work to do to bring this story together. That being said, I am curious about what will happen next and that is always a good sign for a first book in a series. Even if there is some room for improvement, Leicht has convinced me to try the second volume.

Book Details
Title: Cold Iron
Author: Stina Leicht
Publisher: Saga Press
Pages: 657
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-4814-4255-8
First published: 2015

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