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.
Mr. Cameron is an author that first got on my radar in my early days of Book Twitter almost a year ago now – I think – as I must have at some point gotten wind of his two fantasy series and added them to my TBR. Now in full honesty, I completely forgot about them until TBRCon this year, when I tuned in for the panels with some of my favorite authors, and there he was in full armor! So when I went to look into his work, I found the books waiting for me on my Goodreads. Ace job Eleni’s memory, as per usual. However the two panels I followed him through, History in SFF and Experiential Inspirations, were great fun and I thought he was rather delightful, so I followed him on Twitter and we chatted a little about his setting inspiration for the Masters and Mages series. In his words: ‘what if the Byzantine Empire never fell? What would Greek and Turkish society be like in the 18th c?’. A taste for the Byzantine is arguably in my programing (waves in Greek), so my interest was now doubly piqued as I don’t see that around often either.
Now, you are here for a review and not my reminiscing, but I also think we tend to overlook series of fortunate events sometimes. Also, if you follow Cameron on Twitter you’ll know that he’s been making very helpful short videos under the tag writingfighting to help with authenticity and answering questions regarding certain weapons and their realistic effects/range/weaknesses etc. This all served as the perfect mood setter to start reading Cold Iron, book one of the Masters and Mages trilogy. Adding to my overall enjoyment of reading this book moreover was the fact that I buddy read it with David S, and Sam from The Book In Hand!
My initial expectations for this text were met right from the start, indeed I was sure there was going to be a certain level of detail, given Cameron’s background as a historian and reenactor, and his contributions in the above mentioned TBRCon panels. That, added to the setting which felt so culturally familiar, actually made me forget at times that I was reading fantasy and not historical fiction (not a bad thing per sè). This admittedly made for a bit of a slow start, but it also aided in rendering the world and characters in a way that made them all feel more real and about to spring from the page. So much so that I could almost smell the gunpowder and leather grease, and hear the sounds of the city or the nib of a quill scratching on vellum, as I was reading. Truly, once you get Cameron’s rhythm, his deeply atmospheric writing makes for a strongly immersive experience.
The other winning aspect was the incredible character work, especially in regard to protagonist Aranthur, whose limited POV we follow through 3rd person narration. His internal dialogue and generally pragmatic but good natured demeanor made for a truly entertaining read, with reactions that felt completely realistic and natural. Aranthur didn’t feel like a character from a story, he felt as real as you and me. Making mistakes and berating himself for them but willing to learn from them in order to do better. That is one of the underlying themes of this whole book in fact. Learning to be open to change and the challenges to one’s beliefs or knowledge; appreciating the importance of different perspectives and figuring out how different spins on certain information can determine the light in which you view things and people. Indeed Cameron touches on stark but important themes of race, immigration, war refugees, bias, and even interpersonal relationships, in a way that is not moralizingly heavy handed, but rather extremely effective and true to life.
His characters have flaws and, in Aranthur’s case, all the uncertainties/new-found responsibilities and interpersonal dynamics that come with young adulthood. I also rather liked that he is initially more concerned with the struggles of studying and living far from home, as well as having to deal with balancing how things are in his family’s corner of the world versus the big city life, instead of being interested in/able to see the bigger picture of political intrigue and national stressors around him. It is a clever device allowing the reader to be introduced into the wider scheme of things along with Aranthur, who starts from only mildly registering the outer ripple aftereffects of big actions that he isn’t a part of, until he is slowly led toward the center of that driving force, as more is gradually revealed in terms of plot and action. Which is perhaps one of the most realistic aspects of this story. The apolitical farmer won’t care about, or maybe even barely hear of the war in another nation, but they will eventually start noticing the differences in their hired workforce, and sometimes not with enough of an open mind.
As I said, the author touches on some themes that are both timeless and relevant to our time, but he does so in a way that is infused with some light humor, good taste, and feels more like a guiding hand toward open mindedness rather than a lecture. Achieving all of this through a common man protagonist who has common man concerns. Aranthur is not an epic hero of old, he is a young man coming to terms with a changing world, and that is what makes him more relatable. All of this steeped in a background of awesome action, an array of interesting and well rendered side characters, magical creatures, and an unfolding mystery! The magic system itself was quite beautiful to picture, as well as interestingly rendered as something that could vary from culture to culture in its forms and techniques, quite like any other kind of craftsmanship or scholarship.
Finally, in thinking on this novel, the word that has been at the forefront of my mind from the very start was Elegance. I am not exaggerating when I say that I found Cameron’s writing, both in the style/pacing and tackling of themes, as practical, well measured, and elegantly poised as a fencer’s duel. It is not easy to do, and, for my part, I think he did it brilliantly while still continuously learning along the way. I don’t think Cold Iron is the same book at the end, as it was at the very beginning, and I have a feeling that it will continue to get better and better as the story progresses in the next two books, which I am extremely eager to read once I am done with my last uni paper!
Until next time dear reader,
Eleni A. E.