I was a huge fan of Miles Cameron’s Traitor Son Cycle, the first fantasy by an experienced historical fiction writer. Which reminds me that I really need to pick up some of Cameron’s historical fiction (written as Christian Cameron). I loved that series, but Cold Iron, book one in Cameron’s new fantasy series, may very well exceed it.
It is also a very different book, though, so read on for my thoughts on Cold Iron. And this is a book that left with as many thoughts and feels as it did entertained.
This new Masters & Mages series is different enough from The Traitor Son Cycle that—as good as both are—you may like one and not the other. So a bit about the differences: The Traitor Son Cycle is very much quarter-turn fantasy, with its countries lining up fairly neatly with real world analogues, and the society and technology roughly corresponding to late medieval Europe. The story Masters & Mages centers around a city that bears a strong resemblance to Constantinople, and you will notice analogues—the City is peopled by Byzas, the main character is an Arnaut (the Turkish word for Albanians)—but the world in generally doesn’t align nearly as neatly as ours.
And where The Traitor Son Cycle was late medieval, with rudimentary guns only showing up late in the series, Masters & Mages is early modern, and firearms are relatively common (as always, we need more flintlock fantasy and especially flintlock epic fantasy and early stage flintlock fantasy). The world of Masters & Mages has seen an enormous change do to the democratization of magic. This bears some resemblance to the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment and other liberal reforms (again, something we need more of in fantasy), but it looks much different in practice. Masters & Mages is more concerned with using the fantasy genre to engage with human nature. Monsters and magic are present, but not to nearly the same extent as in The Traitor Son Cycle.
But perhaps the biggest change is that, where The Traitor Son Cycle is throw-you-in-the-deep-end epic fantasy that introduces a huge, complex story pretty much right from the get-go, Cold Iron takes a more traditional tack. Aranthur plays the familiar role of the farm boy-turned-chose one, even if he isn’t really a chosen one.
Cold Iron is a coming of age story that feels more real than the average offering. It feels like a coming of age story written for a man looking back on his youth rather than the actual youth, self-awareness not being one of the gifts of the young (a feature not a bug, to me, but YMMV). Aranthur is a farm boy who isn’t the chosen one. He isn’t even a farm boy anymore. A little noblesse oblige has allowed him to study at the Academy in the City. But he winds up playing a role in big events because of a few turns of chance and a few personal choices.
The strength of Cold Iron is the strength of Aranthur’s journey. He is talented enough to catch the eye of masters around the city and curious and enthusiastic enough to want to jump in with two feet at every opportunity that comes along. In short order he finds himself fighting bandits and duels, studying under the best swordmaster in the City, joining the militia and serving as a spy, and translating a key grimoire under the personal eye of the Academy master. He is repeatedly faced with choices that will lead to him becoming a certain type of man, and he repeatedly makes a certain type of choice.
But he also faces the disassociation that comes from leaving your hometown behind and changing in ways that will never let you truly be a part of it again, but being unwilling to change in ways that will truly allow you to be a part of your new world. To the Byzas of the City, he is a rural rube and a thieving Arnaut. To his Arnaut family and friends, he has abandoned them—and worse rejected their norms and values in favor of those of the City. To the refugees flooding the City, he is just another oppressive Byzas. This is where Cold Iron really shines. Aranthur’s journey is something I identify with deeply on a personal level (I talked about some of this in this post over at the other blog).
He smiled around at his family, who fairly glowed with pride now he was telling them about things they could understand. Studying Safiri with the Master of Arts and working an ancient and complex and possibly lost occulta—such a thing would only frighten his mother. Fighting a duel for a friend over his affair with a married woman . . . not so good. But leather-working was good. Their town had a leather-worker.
One thing that separates Aranthur from the more usual farm-boy-turned-city-boy character, especially in contemporary, non-fantasy works, is that he appreciates where he comes from, even as he is leaving it behind. His compatriots in the City may not see the value in leather-working, but he does, and he recognizes and respects that his family does. He also realizes that his rural upbringing equips him to critique the Academy and the City, just as studying at the Academy has equipped him to critique his village.
He wanted to tell Alfia that her critique of everyone else was merely a sign of her own fears. But he had learnt these truths from books and from observation, in just one year at the Academy, and life in the village, with all its complexity and traditions, made him question the learning of his books and masters.
There is so much more to it than that. There are wonderful side characters, several tense swordfights, more than one attempted magical assassination, espionage and skullduggery, tumultuous affairs, and, finally, the sort of big battle Cameron does so well. The action generally takes place on a smaller scale than in the Traitor Son Cycle, but the end game in this volume certainly suggests an epic fantasy and one which will involve far more battles in the future. (Cold Iron is a strong opening book in a series, and an effective one, but it is definitely the opening book in a series.)
I do have to gripe about one thing—the map. Cold Iron includes a beautiful map. That beautiful map and the action and travels of the story bear scant resemblance to each other. You could almost believe that the publisher had included the wrong map entirely by error. A solid 90% of the place names from the story appear nowhere on the map (and vice versa). This is at least in part, I think, because the map depicts “the world” (I know because it is labeled “the world”), but the story is this book is still relatively local. Also I think Miles Cameron just really hates maps. But maps have been a fantasy storytelling lubricant for a hundred years. What does Cameron think, that he’s going to sit there and reinvent the wheel?
(There is a reader’s guide that clears at least some of these issues up. For one, Volta, which is mentioned repeatedly in the story, is mislabeled as Mitla on the map.)
5 of 5 Stars.