Book Review: Cold Iron by Miles Cameron
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Series: Book 1 of Masters & Mages
Publisher: Orbit (October 23, 2018)
Length: 640 pages
I’ve always felt like I missed out on something big when it comes to Miles Cameron, not having read his Traitor Son Cycle. And while that series is still on the to-read list, when I found out about Cold Iron, the first book his new series called Master and Mages, I saw it as the perfect opportunity to finally experience this author’s work for myself and see what the fuss is all about.
As such, I had no idea what to expect when I started this book. I was a little surprised to find strong throwback vibes to the classic fantasy stories in which the humble farmboy leaves the sheltered confines of his remote village to go to school and explore the world, only to stumble upon a greater destiny than he ever imagined for himself. At least, this was the novel’s early direction. Readers follow Aranthur, a young mage from the rural outskirts who has been living in the big city to study the magical arts at the prestigious academy. We first meet him on the road as he travels home to spend the holidays with his family, but then our protagonist gets himself mixed up in a violent conflict at a local inn, which ends up with him killing someone in self-defense.
This watershed moment leads Aranthur down a new path to a world full of unexpected and exciting opportunities—the chance to master his skills with the blade and to rub elbows with the city’s most elite. But as the political landscape becomes ever more unstable, Aranthur begins to question his role in all of it, wondering why this life of blood, death, and cold iron is the one fate has chosen for him, and thinking maybe there is still a way to change and protect the people he cares about.
As I said, Cold Iron contains strong allusions to classic and popular fantasy tropes, a no doubt intentional decision by the author, who has made some clear attempts to revitalize how we view the genre. Remarkably, there is a decent amount of freshness in a novel like this, even with all the well-worn ideas, in part because Cameron never takes them to the point where they feel superficial or misused. He also includes themes that contemporary readers can relate to, while being careful not to cross the line into overtly discussing current issues.
Aranthur was also a likeable guy. Like most coming-of-age tales about idealistic and easily impassioned young men, his story was full of surprises. In many ways, his character calls to mind Kvothe from Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, another novel that has often been described as rooted in the classical fantasy tradition but with updated twists for a modern readership. Both protagonists start from humble beginnings to wind up the central figure in a conflict much bigger than they are, in a position to affect great change with their decisions. Both spend a good chunk of time in a university setting, learning new things and making new friends. Both seem to constantly moan about being broke. Bottom line, there are enough parallels between the two that make me think if you enjoyed one, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy the other.
On the flip side, these kinds of stories also tend to have slow buildups and Cold Iron is no exception, especially since it contains so much complex political intrigue. I won’t deny there were parts that had me wishing I could skim, even knowing full well that the narrative is setting up the world and slowly introducing all the key players. As a result, there is a lot of initial wandering and the accompanying stop-and-go pacing. There were several scenes which made me and stop and ask myself, what’s the point? And yet, while not every moment is filled with riveting action or excitement, every new experience Aranthur has, every new encounter with a character or every new relationship he cultivates is another step towards revealing Cameron’s grand plot.
To put it simply, Cold Iron is a good start. The biggest challenge in writing the first book of an epic fantasy series is always the balancing act between the elements of world-building and the overall plot. You want to give enough attention to the former because it is the basis upon which your entire series will be built, but at the same time you don’t want to smother the latter because the main character and his story still needs to be compelling enough to hold the reader’s interest. On the whole, I believe Miles Cameron accomplished this goal. The pacing is shaky in places, it’s true—but I also think he’s also established a solid foundation for the next novel, which should flow more smoothly as a result. But perhaps the biggest proof of this opening novel’s success lies in the fact I’m intrigued by Aranthur and I feel invested in the outcome of his story. Needless to say, I’ll be continuing with the sequel.