I’ve been a big fan of Miles Cameron since I met him at a Gollancz event and really enjoyed talking to him about swords and herbs, so when I saw his latest book was up on NetGalley, it was an instant request for me. Cold Iron is a coming-of-age fantasy in the classic style – though it’s got some very clever things to say about life, politics, and swords, it’s not going to impress those who don’t normally read male-authored epic fantasy.
Book: Cold Iron by Miles Cameron
Read before: No
Ownership: E-ARC received from NetGalley for fair review.
First things first – if you don’t like detailed sword fights, this is not the book for you. I admit that I usually skim through fight scenes, because I don’t find them particularly interesting, but I was fascinated through every single sword fight in Cold Iron. Cameron has a real knack for describing action, and you can definitely see his passion and knowledge of how to fight with a sword. It’s extremely easy to picture every move each person makes, and by the end of the book you have enough knowledge to wince when a character does something stupid in a fight, because you know it’s stupid! The majority of the action scenes are duels, rather than huge wars, and this was definitely more interesting to me.
So, Cold Iron is the story of Aranthur Timos, a student at a magical university who gets drawn into an enormous conspiracy of the save-the-world-from-those-weird-cultists variety. He’s a normal guy, more or less – pretty good at magic, but not exceptional; has some friends, but isn’t wildly popular; owns a fancy-ass sword, but is by no means a sword-master. What is unusual about him is that he has a knack for showing up in exactly the wrong place at the right time, which means that he becomes embroiled in political situations far above his head. It’s a nice change to see a farm boy who really is just that.
Most of the book has Aranthur floundering as he tries to work out what’s going on. He’s been asked to study sword-fighting with a master, and assigned to learn a new language and translate a grimoire that could be the key to stopping the end of the world. He gets, and loses, a girlfriend. He becomes an officer in the army. He somehow befriends a master spy, the general of the army, the prince of an eastern country, and the emperor’s mistress (all of whom, luckily, are on his side). But he essentially has no idea how any of this happens to him. He’s extraordinarily passive and actually kind of dumb, for all that the spymaster keeps telling him he’s brilliant. There are a lot of scenes where people in the know have to explain what’s going on to Aranthur, and although this is pretty realistic given that he’s supposed to be a normal guy, it’s a little bit annoying for the reader. He kind of reminds me of Garion from the Belgariad, but at least he shut up and did as he was told, rather than keep putting everything at risk through ignorance. The thing is, Aranthur is a very minor player in the world events happening, and limiting the reader’s understanding to his makes for a slightly vague and dissatisfying read, rife with info dumps when someone explains something to him.
The magic is an interesting mix of ideas. On the one hand, you have a fairly tried-and-tested system where some people have magic and can pretty much do anything as long as they have the energy and a spell to do it with. On the other, there’s a more interesting system of ‘compulsions’, which is a form of mind control that relies (in some part) on the caster having a good relationship with the person they are trying to control, which is very interesting. This also introduces some moral elements to magic, since killing people hardens you, making it harder to do spells that rely on empathy. Oh yeah, and there’s also randomly a unicorn and a dragon. They really stuck out to me as not being fully explained.
My major criticism of this is that every single non-family female character in this book appeared to be attracted to Aranthur, even those old enough to be his mother or grandmother. For someone who’s supposed to be just a normal guy, this seemed a little OTT. He’s never mentioned as being particularly good-looking. He’s also kind of a dick to all the women he gets involved with – he sleeps with them and leaves, or sleeps with them and then ignores them, or kisses them and then writes them letters about his relationship troubles with someone else. I feel like this was meant to illustrate that he’s still a fairly young man who’s learning to deal with women, but it really made me respect him less when he consistently treats the girls around him like crap. There are a lot of women in leadership positions, with a variety of personalities, so it’s not at all warrior-mother-or-whore, don’t get me wrong, so it’s not a problem with the world. Just a problem with Aranthur.
There’s also a lot of racism in this world, and not all of it is condemned. It’s a good choice to have your protagonist be an outsider from a particular land to create conflict, but a terrible choice to have him refer to his own people as ‘mongrels’. The Arnaut-hating is constant and really rather wearing. The setting is more-or-less European, with Arnauts seeming Middle Eastern (turbans and beards being the norm) and Zhou being ambiguously “Eastern”. One of the main threads underpinning the central plot is the displacement of thousands of refugees. I do think that Cameron was trying to include it as opinions of his characters, since he does condemn the bigotry of the political families, and appear sympathetic to the refugees, but it’s not doing anything new. There’s also a lot of borrowing of Greek words and culture (here referred to as Ellene, presumably derived from Hellene), but it’s unclear as to whether this world ever had an Ancient Greece and to me, it muddied the world-building.
The ‘cold iron’ of the title has nothing to do with fairies, which was a shame. It’s a sort of password to let people know you’re on the same side as them in the defeat-the-cultists war – and once Aranthur learns this, he basically drops it into every single conversation. Dude, you’re a terrible spy. There’s some sort of weird metaphor about ‘cold’ and ‘hot’ iron, but I have to say, I didn’t get it.
It’s strange. I enjoyed this book a lot while I was reading it, but the more I think about it, the more I’m finding fault with it. The world-building is not as clever or as tight as I would have liked; the big bad is very vague; the politics are confusing; the main character is really kind of an asshole. The language is lovely, and easy to read, but I don’t really feel like anything happened other than Aranthur learning what was going on. It would fit perfectly into the canon of fantasy from 30 and 40 years ago – it really feels like a David Eddings – which has its place, but as a modern female reader who has experience of way more interesting world-building, it disappointed me.
Three out of five cats, I think. If you like your fantasy traditional, this is an exciting and classic read. If you’re hoping for something innovative or feminist, may I recommend The Tethered Mage by Melissa Caruso?