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Cold Iron by Stina Leicht

Cold Iron by Stina Leicht
Book Name: Cold Iron
Author: Stina Leicht
Publisher(s): Saga Press
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Ebook
Genre(s): Fantasy
Release Date: July 14, 2015

“Perfection lacks opportunity for growth. Learn the value of error, especially the errors of others. Do not equate good luck with virtue, and do not indulge in superiority. Above all, remember that the powerful make only one type of mistake – deadly ones.”

Cold Iron, the first book in the new Malorum Gates series, is a difficult book to pin down.

In many ways, the world-building is fascinating, creating opportunities for further thought and discussion, even if the descriptions of the world and its history are occasionally thin. Its protagonists have complex motivations, failings and insecurities, yet each of the villains we meet are surprisingly one-dimensional. It’s a book with big ideas and an epic storyline, but the time jumps in between chapters can make it feel less like a single novel and more like a collection of short stories.

A two-time John W. Campbell Award nominee and an IAFA William L. Crawford Award finalist, Leicht has packed the plot to the brim with social commentary about power and violence. The book is centered around royal twins Nels and Suvi, and Ilta, a young healer. As their people, the magic-wielding Kainen (elves) fight a losing battle against the technologically superior Acrasians (humans), all three find themselves playing key roles in ensuring a future for their race.

Nels is introduced as a bookish, slightly out-of-touch teenager when the book begins, fascinated by his bodyguard even as he generally shows little interest in the commoners around him. Unlike the rest of his race, Nels has never developed any magic, so when he and the residents of a small village are threatened, Nels is unable to use mind control magic to overpower his attackers. Instead, he breaks his society’s ultimate taboo by picking up the sword of a fallen soldier and killing to defend his people.

It’s then that we as readers realize just how different the Kainen society is from most epic fantasy cultures. Rather than being hailed as a hero, Nels is immediately disowned by his father the king, and sent to be a soldier, the lowest rung in the Kainen social ladder. Each time Nels kills, he creates a mental connection with his victim – learning all the details about their life that made them who they were. It’s a fascinating idea, but ultimately is not explored too deeply.

In a military where commanders are expected to use their command magic to compel soldiers to work in steadfast unison, Nels must rely on his wits and ability to inspire his troops. At times, Leicht explores the ramifications of such magic, which steals soldiers’ free will, but may also save lives by making soldiers fearless in battle or maintaining discipline among the ranks. At times, it’s seen as a weapon of necessity; other times, it’s roundly criticized.

Suvi, meanwhile, finds herself fending off her uncle Sakari’s quest for power. Her portion of the plot really takes off when she leads a mission to build an alliance with the Waterborne. The differences between the two cultures prove fascinating, and while I have a feeling the scenes on the ship aren’t terribly accurate, they proved an enjoyable complement to Nels’ military storyline.

Meanwhile, Ilta finds herself balancing her relationships with both Nels and Suvi while preparing to inherit her grandmother’s role as her nation’s top healer. It’s refreshing to find an epic fantasy story in which one of the primary plot lines centers around a little-discussed aspect of war with distant cultures – inoculation (Leicht handles it in such a way that it’s not nearly as dull as I make it sound). Ilta’s romantic relationship with Nels, and the sudden burst of command magic that consumed their first romantic encounter, created an equally fascinating exploration of sexual consent.

Between the exploration of violence, compulsion magic, sex, power and leadership, there’s a lot to dive into, and Cold Iron explores these topics with varying degrees of depth and success. But for a world with some fascinating ideas to explore, it can also be paper thin at times. For example, I couldn’t tell you how the war between the Kainen and the Acrasians began. I got the feeling throughout the story that there were fewer Kainen than Acrasians, but it was hard to tell. What was Sakari’s motivation for his actions as the book’s primary antagonist? I couldn’t tell you.

Some of this confusion may come from the large time gaps between chapters. In some situations, characters refer to conversations or events that took place during these gaps, but most of the time the reader is simply expected to catch up and figure out how much time has passed and where the characters are now in their story.

Ultimately, this was as difficult a book to review as any I’ve read for Fantasy-Faction. The epic scope of the story, the incredible themes Leicht presents and a collection of likeable characters made this an enjoyable read and has me curious about the sequel, Blackthorne, expected in 2017. I wonder if this second book will give Leicht the opportunity to flesh out the world she has created and dedicate more time to some of the themes presented in Cold Iron.


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