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Cold Iron by Miles CameronUK cover3.5 stars
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Buy from IndieBoundChristian Cameron is a veteran historical novelist whose books are notable for the kind of meticulous attention to detail you might expect from someone who’s also a passionate historical reenactor. In fact, one of Cameron’s exploits as a reenactor involved nothing less than helping to stage the 2500th anniversary of the Battle of Marathon in Greece. (Wouldn’t have minded seeing that.) His historical knowledge serves him well in giving his stories a sense of lived-in authenticity. And this is no less true of the epic fantasy novels he writes under the pen name of Miles Cameron.

But for all Cameron’s interest in weaponry and training and military tactics, Cold Iron is no simplistic exercise in grimdark carnage. If anything, it’s the kind of richly constructed character-driven epic fantasy readers of Robin Hobb will be well familiar with, and Cameron is happy to take his time allowing readers to immerse themselves in the journey of his protagonist — in this case, yes, an honest-to-goodness farmboy named Aranthur Timos — whose life is routine and unexceptional until it suddenly isn’t.

Cameron does employ fantasy tropes. But like Hobb, he does so only to the extent of giving his readers enough familiarity to ease them into his story. Beyond that, he is happy to go his own way. Aranthur is a farmboy, yes, and he is attending an Academy to broaden his magical training. But he’s no Chosen One, and the school isn’t there to loom large as the backdrop against which we’re invited to bask in his total awesomeness (like some fantasy Marty Stu heroes I could name). When we meet Aranthur, he’s studying languages, worrying about balancing school and work, worrying about the rent for his room and board, ready for the holiday when he can go back home and see his parents and kid sister and work the fields a bit. He has no particularly great ambitions, and is a generally decent fellow who values his friendships.

Things begin to change on his journey home from the city of Megara. Looming in the background, there is talk of war and strife far away. The Duchy of Volta to the west — so far to the west it’s not even on the book’s map — has apparently undergone some kind of violent rebellion or coup, and off to the east, there are rumors of a disturbing extremist movement led by people calling themselves the Pure, who hope to undo centuries of egalitarian reforms led by the legendary Emperor Tirase. On his way back to his family farm, Aranthur stops at an inn, where there is eventually a scuffle with drunken soldiers, leading to Aranthur’s taking his first human life. Rarely in epic fantasy do we see a character distressed at the moral implications, let alone the emotional trauma, of killing a man, even if it’s a clear situation of self-defense.

The event brings Aranthur to the attention of several power players in imperial politics, including the swordsman and spy Tiy Drako, the Lightbringer mage Kurvenos, the master swordsman Sparthos, and Iralia, a courtesan and mage who has, of course, much more going on than meets the eye. I suppose, for the sake of the plot, it was darned convenient to have all of these folks converge at the same rural inn all at once. But Cameron’s writing, his skills at worldbuilding and character, are all so immersive that I, for one, didn’t mind.

The plot unfolds in a way that keeps Aranthur the viewpoint character at all times, in contrast to the George R.R. Martin approach of multiple viewpoints. This allows Cameron to keep important events at first happening at a remove, spoken of in fretful whispers, until everything begins moving closer to Aranthur and we experience revelations as he does. There is turmoil building, much of it rooted in factions whose politics are so intricate that few characters, including Aranthur, can fully understand it. It’s an approach to narrative very reminiscent of Assassin’s Apprentice, in fact. Aranthur tries to keep up with his studies, while at the same time taking a greater interest in swordsmanship under the training of Sparthos. He does not initially appreciate the full significance of being asked to help transcribe and translate an ancient magical grimoire by his Master of Arts, mostly being excited by the fact he’ll be working alongside a fellow student he’s crushing on. But when he joins the City militia, he is warned to expect to be called up at any moment.

Cold Iron is long and very dense, its prose rich with descriptive detail and its pacing unhurried. This might try the patience of some readers. But fans of this sort of thing — in particular Cameron’s earlier series, the Traitor Son Cycle — should be pretty well acclimated. I did find that there were moments that could have used some tightening. And the book ends with the expected sequel setup in a way that I found a little abrupt.

But I really liked Aranthur, and the friends and lovers and colleagues and allies he meets along his journey, and Cameron’s storytelling will make you feel as if you’re there. I admired how important cultures and languages were to the worldbuilding, and the plot offers a bit of interesting commentary on current events, with such elements as the City’s contempt for the war refugees flooding in, and the notion of an uprising of traditionalist reactionaries who want to limit the common people’s access to magic and reserve its use strictly for an aristocratic elite, who believe it’s their birthright to wield all the power. Aranthur himself, despite the friends he’s making in high places, finds himself frequently the target of bigotry for being an Arnaut, dark-skinned and from the country. Finally, I liked the way a drake, a small sentient dragon, is just kind of there.

There’s so much more in this book than what I have been able to describe in a single review, but Cold Iron is an impressive — if occasionally too busy — first volume in a series that promises brilliant things to come. I’ll be eager to renew my acquaintance with Aranthur Timos when it’s time for his saga to continue.

Followed by Dark Forge.