Hey, have you heard the one about the crown prince who nearly died saving a bunch of peoples’ lives, and then returned home in triumph only for his father to disown him in front of the entire court?
No? Neither had I, before I read Stina Leicht’s Cold Iron, a new flintlock fantasy (and a remarkable change of pace) from the author of the 1970s Ireland-set fae tale Of Blood and Honey. The ancient country of Eledore is ruled over by the kainen, a not-quite-human race endowed with magic that empowers them to control beasts and humans. For hundreds of years, the kainen have maintained order in their own country, and relations abroad, through magical means (they have unsurprisingly agreeable relationships with visiting ambassadors, who always seem to side with the Eledoreans by the end of their visits). But all empires eventually end, and this one is in its dying days: the nobility’s power has made them arrogant, and their attention has turned from maintaining the country to maintaining their hairdos and illicit affairs (unless you’re the elusive, possibly evil brother to the king, in which case you’re distracting the court with clockwork sex automatons so you can keep working your evil magic. Yeah. You heard me.)
Enter Nels and Suvi, twin heirs of Eledore. Nels is an insecure boy waiting for his magic to manifest, while Suvi is a fully mature young woman, and the odds-on favorite to succeed her father. When something irrevocable alters Nels’ fate, it sparks an avalanche of changes that will shake the kingdom to its foundations. Toss in a scheming uncle, a few deeply offended neighboring countries, and the possible return of the Old Ones (a threat greater than any squabbling humans), and we’ve got a novel of toppling dominoes, seeming to lead to inevitable destruction….
Cold Iron is undeniably epic fantasy, but while Leicht loads up on all the thrills we love in the genre (Huge battles! Countries in peril! Heroes facing impossible odds! Coming-of-age stories! Banter! So much banter!), she also plays with the formula, twisting expected tropes in unusual ways. I was fascinated by the Eledorean society’s low opinion of the military, and indeed, of all professions dealing in death and violence. I don’t think I have ever come across a fantasy novel that used the advantages of being, you know, fantasy to think around giving martial power an honored, or at least feared, place at the table of power. Due to their magic, the kainen have the luxury of forgetting the necessity of violence, which they’ve done to such an extent that soldiers are relegated to third-class citizenry (they can only wear certain colors, only live in certain parts of the city). I’ve never before encountered a fictional military set up to have to prove its worth again and again (seriously, this may be the only universe in which the NEA would have a good shot at getting more funding than the Pentagon).
Leicht also flips the script on the gender dynamics of its coming-of-age narrative. Instead of a female fish-out-of-water, just-want-to-do-what-the-boys-do sort of heroine, we get a girl who is considered superior, more capable, and smarter than her brother from the get-go. Suvi gets the traditional male storyline, proving her capabilities make her worthy to take over the throne. Nels, on the other hand, is a hero who has been explicitly denied a traditional story of princely triumph. His only option is to kick in walls from the outside. The male hero, for once, must carve a place for himself in a society that will firmly, and insultingly, block him from doing so, and judge him for not conforming (he’s even the one with the sappy, unorthodox romance!). It’s fascinating to read a story in which the assumption of power rests in female hands, and a male must fight tooth-and-nail for everything.
This is the first volume of a series, and it’s clear the wider world outside of Eledore is going to offer plenty to keep us interested. Leicht makes clear that we are only witnessing these events from the perspective of the sheltered, fortunate upper reaches of the kainen, and it’s also clear we are going to view this world from many other perspectives in coming installments. Our heroes are going to have to make a new world out of what they can find, and that’s going to keep things plenty interesting—by the first volume’s end, we’ve already met the colorful Waterborne nation: merchants, traders, and champions of freedom (and flexible sexuality) on the high seas (Jack Sparrow would’ve fit right in). I’m stoked to see what she comes up with next.
Cold Iron ends on precarious moment of transition. As our heroes come into adulthood, there are clearly many challenges left to face. I’m eager to see what Leicht will throw at Nels, Suvi, and Eledore next. I’m excited for us to, as Bilbo has it, step out our front doors…because in this series, there’s no telling where we’ll be swept off to next.
What’s your favorite flintlock fantasy?