Cold Iron by Miles Cameron

Rating 6.7/10
As much as I enjoyed some aspects of the novel, especially the underlying depth and social commentary, there’s not quite enough there to have me rush back.

Aranthur is just another student on the way home for the holidays, but the inn in which he chooses to break the journey turns out to be the very wrong place, and it’s certainly the very wrong time. The bloody episode that follows has ramifications which spread vine-like through the narrative, including significant changes for all those who happened to be there. For Aranthur, it sets the path of his life thereafter, throwing him into the heart of political intrigue of the highest sort.

The story is a meandering one. Safe to say if you’re looking for non-stop action, this is not for you. In fact, this is another book that reminded me very much of The Name of the Wind because it charts the tale of a nobody from nowhere who ends up at the very centre of things, while still having to pay his rent. Aranthur is clearly a ta’veren, but he’s also a minor player in much greater conflicts. He may be the focus of the story and the voice through which the reader sees the events of the book, but it’s made clear that the other characters are deeply involved in the great game-high politics is being played by all and played to win. It makes you feel for him because he is very much at the mercy of what’s happening around him and while that gives him a pretty passive role in his own life, he works hard within the framework he’s given to do the right thing. In any case, like Kvothe, Aranthur is engaging enough that you don’t mind spending the time with him regardless of whether it’s really moving the plot forward. And while it might be slow and character focused, when the action hits, it’s brutal and inventive. Shadow monsters come out of nowhere and rip you to bloody shreds. I mean, that’s what might happen. At some point.

The language well reflects the character’s awkwardness, especially in the beginning when he is unsure of himself and his new, more responsible role in society: ‘Join you and do what? With my minimal sword skills and my nonexistent talent for Safiri and power, join you and we’ll save the world?’ Without a doubt, this is a coming of age story, a journey in which the reader learns alongside Aranthur, and the development of knowledge is a significant motif in the book. It seems like it’s important to Miles Cameron too since his created world is deeply influenced by our own, peppered with vocabulary from history and classical/world languages: syr for sir and agora (marketplace) to name just two. The scope of the word borrowing extends far outside the timescale in which the book is set, something that feels like the later Middle Ages to Early Modern period. The transition between swords and guns allows for some thrilling fight scenes, never losing that classic swords and sorcery feeling. The magic system itself has a similar set up to The Wheel of Time, with a split between female and male power, here called saar and sihrrespectively- the male being the darker as in WoT. The potential of power is hinted at but used sparingly- as, with so much in this book, learning is necessary for greater workings. On the other hand, the everyday, smaller, more egalitarian uses of power by normal people are cleverly used as the motivation for the grand struggle: who should get to use it? For some, the Pure, the answer is only the best people. And guess what, that ain’t me and you. It’s an effective way to talk about class struggle and discrimination, especially since, in this world, magic is needed for some basic tasks, ones that keep people alive. 

The feeds into another challenging topic the book deals with: racism. Some reviewers have suggested this book might be racist, for example citing ‘mongels’ as an unacceptable term to use in modern writing. No judgement from me on that (because it doesn’t sound good at all), but I think this is a book in which people come to realise, or not, their prejudices, rather than starting out maturely developed. My reading of it was that racism was something the book particularly tries to address, especially through responses to refugees from the wars in the east who continue to arrive in the city and the countryside as things worsen in their former homes. In both environments, refugees are identified as a problem, dealt with in a range of ways. The language used to describe differences between foreigners and local populations come from the mouths of the characters rather than the author and reflect the insidious and ever-present nature of racism, the seemingly inescapable need for people to identify and highlight human variation in order to position themselves above others. The supposed clash of cultures is repeatedly utilised as an excuse for a refusal to understand or accept different ways of living, enabling the author to show the sheer irrationality of racial prejudice. It reveals the way ideas about people are created and used to promote specific agendas, whilst the destructive power of such concepts become ever more clearly written in pain and death. It’s a pointed commentary on the effects of war and persecution, one which has special validity for our own society.

Unfortunately, once it hits the high point at the end of Book 1, at about 80%, there’s a bit of a slow down with some serious time given to over-explanation. There’s still a lot going on but I just couldn’t get back that same feeling from the first book. As much as I enjoyed some aspects of the novel, especially the underlying depth and social commentary, there’s not quite enough there to have me rush back.

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