“It is important to know that you can kill, evenly, ruthlessly, without pause to wrestle your conscience, because the world is full of people who will kill you if you prevaricate.”
What is Cold Iron About?
A young mage-in-training takes up the sword and is unwittingly pulled into a violent political upheaval, in the first book of this epic fantasy trilogy by Miles Cameron, author of The Red Knight.
Aranthur is a promising young mage. But the world is not safe and after a confrontation leaves him no choice but to display his skill with a blade, Aranthur is instructed to train under a renowned Master of Swords.
During his intensive training he begins to question the bloody life he’s chosen. And while studying under the Master, he finds himself thrown into the middle of a political revolt that will impact everyone he’s come to know.
To protect his friends, Arnathur will be forced to decide if he can truly follow the Master of Swords into a life of violence and cold-hearted commitment to the blade.
Miles Cameron (otherwise known by pen names that include Christian Cameron, and Gordon Kent) is one of my all-time favourite authors. This prolific, best-selling author of over 40 novels, has penned one of my top ten fantasy series ever: “The Traitor Son Cycle”.
But with a ponderous reading schedule, I had not yet gotten to his “Masters and Mages” series yet, though I was itching to give it a try. Finally, I’ve read book one of the series, “Cold Iron”. It was fabulous, and leaves me eminently excited for the rest of “Masters and Mages”!
This novel begins with a fantastic, shocking prologue. If you’ve read any of my reviews, you know that I adore prologues, especially when they’re done right. “Cold Iron” definitely hits the mark with its opening, as we follow a character whose fate in inextricably linked with the protagonist, Aranthur.
Once the prologue is behind us, we meet our aforementioned main character. Aranthur is a young man at odds, perhaps, with what path he’s embarked on, versus who he really aspires to be. That path he’s treading is one of a mage, engaged in studies at a distinguished magical academy. But what Aranthur really craves is to be an elite swordsman and warrior.
That route to self-discovery and self-fulfillment seems far away for our young main character, as he’s a middling, unremarkable student. Additionally, while not a master with the sword, he’s strong, quick, daring, and eager to learn.
The novice duelist Aranthur comes from humble but honest stock, and he departs school for the holidays, headed back to his home village, stopping to shelter in an inn enroute. There his life takes a decided turn, as he intervenes in a vicious attack at the inn.
Aranthur becomes caught up in a web of complicated subterfuge, that on the surface involves the inn’s proprietor and his family, an expert but arrogant swordsman, an mystifying but gorgeous courtesan, and a young spy.
Aranthur soon learns that he’s nowhere near as good a swordsman as he needs to be, that he has a lot to understand about the chaotic world events swirling around him, and that once you take the path of the sword, it’s not easy to turn back.
A brilliant character-focused book, just my jam, the reader follows a main character who is very well fleshed-out, and very realistic as a young man in the grips of angst, turmoil, and finding his way socially, emotionally, as he evolves into true adulthood.
Aranthur as he acts somewhat obtusely at times, led by his hormones, falling in and out of infatuation with various women, and doing all the frustrating things young people might be prone to do. He is distracted, fickle, and sometimes weak-willed and erratic in how he feels about the women in his life, and I thought Cameron did a fabulous job with capturing the tumultuous nature of the protagonist.
The secondary players are amazing, complex, and very flawed, more so than Aranthur, and some of them are particularly mysterious and intriguing. Amongst all the wonderful auxiliary players, Dahlia stood out for me, with her steely courage, frank and funny manner, and much more worldly and mature outlook on things, compared to Aranthur.
The worldbuilding in Cool Iron is extremely lush and expansive. For me, reminiscent of the Turko-Mongol dynasty era, with flintlock level armaments and advancements, definitely Eastern-inspired, replete with the engrossing details of a uniquely created language, a world of academia and magecraft, marketplaces and military institutions, various cultures and races, backstory and incredible lore.
Cameron does not shy away from difficult themes in this book, and they were dealt with in his usual adroit style. Social injustice, racism, bigotry, sexism, immigration policies, and more are tackled head-on, and very adeptly.
The political intrigue definitely has a dash of almost a Dan Brown thriller (with the requisite secret organizations and intricate plots) in the mix, as a clandestine group known as the “Disciples” are trying to revert the world to an elitist state, where magic is only in the hands of the nobility, and aristocratic houses vie for control of said magic.
And yes, there is magic, oh boy, in this book, and it is wonderful. I’m not even going to speak to the magic elements here for fear of spoiling it…just go read the book, and know that I found the magic to be delicious.
The level of detail attained with weaponry, armour, fighting techniques, and strategy, are of course, in the top-most tier of fantasy books, because after all ladies and gentlemen, this is a Miles Cameron novel.
A veteran re-enactor and expert in ancient warfare, Cameron brings a verisimilitude to the one-on-one duel or big battle scene that makes the hair stands up on the back of your neck, your palms sweaty, and your heart beat faster as tension created prior to the conflict, the raising of stakes, then the sudden explosion, makes for a bloody, thrilling, and haunting spectacle.
One thing that stood out to me about the fight scenes in “Cold Iron”, was that the “non-lethal” results often seemed more devastating than those where people actually died, showing just how awful a debilitating injury can be, when sustained at the edge of a blade.
While by no means purple, Cameron’s prose will always be exquisite, descriptive, raw and bawdy when required, lyrical and beautiful when the scene calls for it. With a sparsity of longer exposition passages, Cameron still succeeds in completely immersing the reader in his world with his prose; the mark of a seasoned and very skilled writer.
Slow-burn, then punctuated by the eruptive fight scenes, with lots of quiet and introspective moments, Cameron manages to simultaneously achieve a “Name of the Wind”-like (Rothfuss) level of coming-of-age story and in-depth characterization (as a matter of fact I found a lot of similarities between Aranthur and Kovthe), a richness to the lore of the world with the scope of “A Song of Ice and Fire” (GRRM), and the unflinching realism in terms of battle and strife of Cameron’s own “Traitor’s Son Cycle”. Let’s be clear, to accomplish this is incredibly difficult. Nonetheless, this is what Cameron has achieved.
Coming-of-age, epic high fantasy, combined with very compelling themes, fabulous worldbuilding, outstanding character work, and the type of jaw-dropping fight scenes we have come to expect from the master of writing combat who is Miles Cameron, this gritty and realistic first installment into “Masters and Mages” smashes, and I’m all in for the rest of the series!
Five plus glowing stars!