High, epic fantasy is perhaps my favorite genre. Yet, its books can easily turn tired and formulaic. Epic fantasy also tends to reach high page counts, both in a given novel and within a giant series, filled with a rich tapestry of characters and world building. But in so doing they can also become bogged-down with superfluous detours and asides. They can balloon into the unmanageable. What I adore about Stina Leicht’s Cold Iron, the first entry in a series entitled The Malorum Gates, is that that she effectively tinkers with many of the genre conventions, merging them with elements more typically stressed in other fiction, while keeping the joy of epic fantasy intact in a hefty read.
Nels and his twin sister Suvi are Kainen royalty in the nation of Eledore, and heirs to the throne. The Kainen are an ancient line of magical humanoids capable of compelling other people and animals. But while Suvi is capably ready to lead, Nels remains unassured, hiding his secret weakness in the Kainen magic expected from his genes. At a moment of crisis, Nels’ inability in traditional strengths leads him to breaking taboo, and thereafter following a path developing other talents in the Eledorean military, shunned from royal court.
Without the support of her brother, Suvi finds herself alone to fight against the growing troubles within the noble family, including the influence of a conniving, power-hungry uncle. Meanwhile, a growing political crisis looms as the human Acrasians — long considered barbarians kept under thumb — wage attack on Eledore. Separate, but with the same ultimate hope, Suvi and Nels struggle to find allies and the means to avert the end of their culture and society.
The allure of fascinating world building permeates Cold Iron from its foundation. There are distinct races and cultures, a magical system with spirituality and ritual within it, ‘flintlock’ technology, and rumors of mythical ‘Old Ones’ soon to return. But rather than being plot driven as epic series often are, Cold Iron gets its page length from firmly character driven exploration. Chapters alternate between the points of view of Nels, Suvi, and a second fascinating female character, a burgeoning healer named Ilta. Each of these chacters has distinctive arcs. Within their minds and emotions they keep a world that seems grandiose instead tightly constrained and immediate to the reader.
Cold Iron did take me awhile to get into, and its one weakness in my mind lies with its pacing. Some readers will have more issue with this than others as it largely stems from the absence of plot-driven momentum. There is certainly action, but if one doesn’t immediately take to the characters and become invested in them then the novel may not be compelling straight away. For me they had to grow on me (excepting Ilta). I’ve seen some reviews where someone gave up on the novel too soon perhaps, and some cases where Nels and Suvi immediately captivated the reader. So I encourage any others to take time to let Cold Iron build. Leicht leaves many questions open for how this world works and how it ended up in its current condition. But as a reader I never felt shortchanged on background, and I look forward to what the further novels will reveal.
Part of what kept me engaged in the novel despite not immediately clicking with its characters was my appreciation of its subverting many expectations for an epic fantasy. As a microbiologist I particularly appreciated that microbes and disease are an important factor in the world of Cold Iron, as they should be, but rarely are in SF & F. Like with other nice details that make her world more believable and engrossing, Leicht introduces viral outbreaks and rudimentary immunology to the text, at the same time without concentrating too much upon it, or unnecessarily merging it with fantastic elements or into some side plot.
For those who appreciate well rendered and treated female characters, Leicht also does an exemplary job, without simply reversing things so that the males are now poorly written or short-changed. Suvi and Ilta are both exceptional, though not flawless, and take the lead in handling their problems rather than relying on Nels. Both remain strong and if anything end up saving Nels from some of his flaws. At the same time, Nels grows past the insecurities with which he starts the novel to find meaning and strength of his own. Though the members of the trio all support one another, they are each portrayed as capable individuals.
The ending of novels can sometimes be the most exasperating, when expectations from a promising start end up being unfulfilled. The last section of Cold Iron was likely my favorite part, and it has left me eager to read where the stories — and more so the characters — go next. It gives me hope that Leicht will also end this series well, continuing to explore issues of gender, class, politics, and religion effectively for the entire remaining journey.