Only fools think war is simple or glorious.
On the magic-drenched battlefield, information is the lifeblood of victory, and Aranthur is about to discover that carrying messages, scouting the enemy, keeping his nerve, and passing on orders is more dangerous, and more essential, than an inexperienced soldier could imagine . . . especially when everything starts to go wrong.
Hello again dear reader/listener! How goes?
I’m glad to see you here because that means you’ve either read my previous review of book one of this series and wanted to see more of my ramblings on it or, you just came across this review by chance and your interest was piqued. Whatever the case, rest assured that this is a spoiler free review so even if you’ve not read book one, there won’t be major spoilers for it here – very minor ones are unavoidable though I’m afraid.
So then! You might remember I had many good things to rave about for book one, and I was now hooked and very invested in seeing how this story and its characters would continue to amuse, amaze and awe. (Yes, the alliteration was on purpose. No, I’m not sorry). And Cameron did not let me down! Dark Forge is one action-packed piece of Wow. From a prologue that gives us a bird’s eye view of the wider picture from a different angle, to the main storyline returning in Aranthur’s pov all through to the end, book two opens with a literal blast of magic and mystery. All the different things that made book one great continued on in here, be it a not commonly found level of authenticity in the minutiae of combat/armor/gear, the perfectly natural and realistic characterization of all the protagonists, or the tastefulness with which topics of war, differing moralities, various cultures, sexuality, interpersonal relationships etc. were dealt with. Opposed to book one though, Dark Forge doesn’t have a slow start, and that initially relaxed pace with which Cameron started this series, is now completely gone.
One way to describe it would be to say that the author grabs your hand, looks back once to say ‘try to keep up’ and sprints off with your hand still held tight. He occasionally stops to make sure you don’t die from that stitch in your side or the lack of oxygen though, so it is not overwhelming either. I’m not a huge fan of prolonged battle sequences personally, they can get a little tiring unless you’ve got a list of names in one hand, and a scale model of the battlefield with a map on the other. However, Cameron’s approach was once again different that what I’m accustomed to when reading epic fantasy battles. That is, we follow all of them from the point of view of a messenger/courier. This made for an interesting variation I thought, as it allows the reader to observe the action from a place that is not entirely removed from the fighting – Aranthur finds himself in the middle of the action, fighting for his life or leading men into skirmishes more than once – but not myopically engaged in it either. If in Cold Iron Aranthur sort of stumbled into the bigger picture by encountering the outermost ripples of it all, in Dark Forge he is very much a main player in bigger, scarier, and definitely more consequential events. Along with his friends and comrades, he has to face the much grimmer realities of war, and properly meets the enemy who was mostly a background shadow in book one. Reader and characters truly get to see the dark extremes to which the villains will go to as they become a much more prominent presence in fact. We meet demons and faceless monsters, together with battle magic and darker sorcery, which all raise the stakes oh so much.
Not all is action and combat though, and it is in those smaller, softer moments in between, where stunned or tired characters take a beat to process everything, that the writing shines the most for me. There is class A banter and there are clever quips, but even more importantly, these are all characters that are self-aware, matter of fact, and noble, each in a different way. Which doesn’t exclude the brashness/arrogant hope of youth of course. But they are also so very troubled and having to deal with their own sense of morality clashing with the realities of war. How are they different from the bad guys when their choices are limited by being stuck between a rock and a hard place? Just so very human, in other words. I don’t think I could ever get tired of them. Aranthur especially, since we are privy to his inner monologue, grows and matures so much in this book as well, I felt genuine pride for him at times, as he steps into leadership roles and has to take the initiative. Also worry… lots of worry towards the end… but I digress. There is a saying about the best leaders being the ones that didn’t ask for the role, and I think it fits what Aranthur has to deal with quite well.
Moreover, the cast of supporting characters grew with some stellar additions, like the queen that is Inoques, (you have to read the book to find out why I deem her so)! Which also reminds me of my biggest miss when reviewing book one as well, and that is the women in this series. They are all chef’s kiss, well rounded, and variously powerful/strong figures, that I thoroughly enjoyed reading about; especially whenever any one of them called Aranthur out on his “youthful” missteps, or any other character on their occasional sexism. And guess what? No pointless and cringeworthy male gaze whatsoever! Sometimes, it’s the little things.
Another thing I really enjoyed overall was the ending, as the atmosphere changes so much from what it had been for all the rest of the book. In fact, the last few chapters were truly several pages of a kind of quite tension you could cut with a knife wrapped in uncertainty, which I found worked brilliantly to both tie up all that happened up until that point and open the way to the grand finale that is coming with Bright Steel.
Ultimately, this second installment in the Masters and Mages trilogy wasted no time, jumping straight into action, complete with hair rising moments or images, cleverly woven details and revelations, all accompanied by a wide variety of characters that earn a special place in your heart with all their little quirks or personable traits. Mr. Cameron continues his elegant duel, but the cuts are getting heavier, the feints more clever, and the tempo faster. I have so many questions that need resolutions and I cannot wait to jump into Bright Steel to find all the answers in what I expect will be an edge-of-my-seat/very-small-hours-of-the-night read till the very end!
Until next time,
Eleni A. E.