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Cold Iron by Miles Cameron

Cold Iron by Miles Cameron
4
Book Name: Cold Iron
Author: Miles Cameron
Publisher(s): Orbit (US) Gollancz (UK)
Formatt: Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Epic Fantasy
Release Date: October 23, 2018 (US) August 30, 2018 (UK)

Cold Iron follows the exploits of Aranthur Timos, a poor but conscientious student, at a university called The Academy, which can be found in a city called the City. The City seems to me to be a fusion of Byzantium and Renaissance-era Venice, possibly with some elements of the Holy Roman Empire and the actual Roman Empire thrown in. Aranthur describes it as the greatest city in the world and, while biased, he’s probably not far wrong.

Yet the City is in turmoil, with different political factions amongst the old noble houses competing for power while a slow social revolution, begun centuries ago, continues to erode the importance of the old ways. Magic, in the form of crystals called Kuria, is available to all and not everyone likes that fact. The lands further east are wracked by war, which has sent refugees flooding into the Empire, inciting further unrest in the City and its environs.

Aranthur is destined to play a great part in the events that follow. In fact, many other characters comment on how he always seems to be at the centre of things and has a growing list of influential friends and acquaintances. It’s possible that these comments are just Cameron poking fun at himself, or at the common trope of a protagonist who always finds their way into the heart of the plot even when they’re actively trying not to. But, given the wheels within wheels within wheels that characterised Cameron’s Traitor Son Cycle, I suspect that there are hidden plot elements guiding Aranthur along and that these will be revealed in future books.

Miles Cameron is an alias of historical fiction author Chris Cameron, so it’s not surprising that he approaches his writing with meticulous authenticity and a tremendous amount of practical knowledge. Sure, there are characters in Cold Iron who can use magic to manipulate minds and knit torn flesh. But those people write out their mystical knowledge using quill pens which they have to make themselves by cutting and trimming feathers into the correct shape. They also have to be constantly aware of the intricacies of politeness and social status, lest they attract violence. And they eat regional dishes, wear clothing that marks out their nationality and station and hang those clothes out to dry by the kitchen fire if they get caught in the rain.

Of course, the rigours of travel have been a common theme in epic fantasy since Tolkien’s day, but Cameron knows the right words to use so that his characters don’t sound like modern people on a camping trip. He also knows the importance of mundane equipment and creates a very well realised and grounded setting. A good quality saddle is a worthy piece of loot in this world and a good horse even more so. You might not learn any actual history from this book but you should have learned a bit about medieval farming and worked out what-on-Earth a fustanella is before you’re done.

Cameron’s writing style in this book is quite formal and descriptive, though not unusually so for a third-person narrative or for epic fantasy in general. This style suits Aranthur pretty well, he’s a self-reflective and thoughtful young man who is often surprised by his own emotions and tends to examine them carefully alongside the reactions and motivations of those around him.

In fact, Aranthur applies his enquiring mind to just about everything. He approaches the theology and magic of his world with a pleasingly philosophical air, even questioning the very nature of magic itself as he learns more about its mysteries and principles (a deep and absorbing topic in itself, one which leaves plenty of unanswered questions for the rest of the series to resolve). He acknowledges that he isn’t a great swordsman even as he racks up an increasingly impressive body-count throughout the story. He regards himself with a certain humbleness that isn’t usually common in young male heroes who find themselves at the centre of a storm of espionage and violence.

His bookish attitude doesn’t always work out well for him and he finds reasons to rue his own single-minded dedication to success in all the areas of his life. This works well as a flaw for a protagonist, because it explains why he’s trusted with important tasks even though he’s not the best at everything and is more than capable of screwing up social interactions.

I liked Aranthur as a character and empathised with his anxieties about impressing the various mentors and authority figures in his life while balancing the pressures of family, money, academic success and friendship. Not to mention his phobia of failing, looking foolish or both. Being a young and (initially) quite innocent man Aranthur’s tendency to fall in love with every pretty woman who looked in his direction was also perfectly believable, as was the way he constantly stressed about it.

Cameron does have an occasional habit of telling you about a particular event or new revelation and then stating Aranthur’s emotional reaction to it a paragraph or two or even a page or so later, almost as an afterthought. I’d say this was a flaw in his writing but I don’t recall it happening in his other books so I wonder if it’s an intentional device to make the reader as confused about Aranthur’s sometimes tempestuous reactions and feelings as he is. In which case it works pretty well.

Cameron also mentions around halfway through the book that Aranthur is a tall young man and that this gives him an advantage in a fight. I had a flick through the book to see if I’d missed a reference to this important fact earlier on, but couldn’t find a mention of it before then. This seems like something of an oversight, as there were situations before the middle of the book where being tall would have been very useful for Aranthur and worth bringing up.

Apart from that I really don’t have many niggles or gripes about this book. Once or twice I noticed words and phrases being re-used, a character gave two civil smiles in the space of a couple of pages for example. But that was it, Cameron is a professional in his element and the power of his voice shines through his words. There are flashes of poetry amongst the careful prose, such as the line where Cameron describes a palace as, A waterfall of white stone buttresses. Such a lovely and evocative image!

One conversation in particular made me grin and stood out as an example of Cameron’s confidence as a writer of military fiction.

“They have a lot more cavalry than you.”

“They have a lot more people on horses. I have all the cavalry.”

And don’t mistake his descriptive ‘let’s learn about cutting leather’ writing style for dullness, Cameron has no compunction about depicting the brutal realities of life in his world. The characters in Cold Iron swear at, shag and slaughter each other on a regular basis. Combat in particular is described with a degree of technical detail which made me think that Cameron is a historical reenactor or medieval martial arts enthusiast of some kind. (I checked and he is. He takes part in re-enactments of ancient, medieval and 18th Century life and warfare and is a practitioner of Armizare – the 15th Century Italian art of swordsmanship.)

Nor does Cameron fall prey to the urge to drop massive infodumps on his readers. We learn a lot about his world, but generally in ways that are relevant to the matters at hand. The information about leather comes from a sequence where Aranthur goes to his day job as a leather worker, which helps him pay for his studies. The facts we learn about this new world unfold as part of the plot, rather than distracting from it. The story is definitely a slow burn but it’s peppered with enough action, intrigue and romance to keep the reader’s mind from wandering.

At the same time, we get plenty of hints and throwaway comments to whet our appetites for more information about this rich and detailed world. Fey beings once roamed the hills where Aranthur’s people now dwell, the benevolent priests known as Lightbringers have dark and wicked counterparts called Darkbringers and Aranthur’s sword may be more than it appears, to name but a few. These mysteries alone will make me track down a copy of the book’s sequel when it comes out.

The book also addresses themes that seem very relevant to our own modern world. Aranthur is an Arnaut, an ethnic group who are widely regarded as barbarians, thieves and bandits by the natives of the City, due to their past as warriors and raiders. He is distrusted, dismissed and put down by many of the characters he meets and has to work hard to tamp down the resentment this breeds in him.

The eastern refugees have an even harder time of it, some find work or land but others starve to death, fall prey to disease, die of exposure or kill their own children to spare them from a lingering death. Meanwhile bandits of all nations prowl the less settled areas and Arnaut peasants mutter about criminal easterners who should go back where they came from (while remaining blissfully unaware that their own ancestors were themselves interlopers, little different from the refugees their descendants despise).

Gender politics are also addressed in this novel to a certain extent. Women in this society (or in The City at least) are able to attend the Academy, fight duels, take lovers, wear men’s clothes, wield magic, achieve high office and serve in the army. Out in the more rural areas they are still expected to settle down and have children, even as the freedoms of the City beckon them. Not everyone in the City understands the value of progress either.

All of this resonated with me and reminded me that the best fantasy holds up a mirror to our own world and reminds us of its flaws. Props to Cameron for doing just that.

In conclusion, Cold Iron is a fine, well-crafted book made by a master of historical and fantasy fiction. It doesn’t tend to wax lyrical in the way that my very favourite books do, but it’s complex, clever and plausible. Cold Iron is well worth your time, particularly if you appreciate slow-burn mysteries, historical verisimilitude or action that’s executed with a high level of technical knowledge.

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