Publisher: Hachette Audio (Audiobook Format – 30 August 2018
Series: Masters & Mages – Book 1
Length: 19 hours, 29 minutes
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
I recently managed to read one of the books that was featured in my Top Ten Books I Wish I Had Read In 2018 list. I have to say I was quite impressed with this book, Cold Iron by Miles Cameron, as it is one of last year’s most intriguing fantasy reads.
Miles Cameron is the pseudonym historical fiction author Christian Cameron uses when he writes fantasy novels. Cameron debuted in 1999 with Rules of Engagement, the first book in the seven-book long Alan Craik thriller series, which he wrote with his father, Kenneth Cameron, under the joint pseudonym of Gordon Kent. In addition to this joint series, Cameron started writing his own novels in 2003 when he wrote his first historical fiction novel, Washington and Caesar. Since then, Cameron has written over 15 historical fiction novels, including the multiple books in his Tyrant, Long War and Chivalry series. In 2013, Cameron branched off again into a new genre, fantasy, with his five-book long Traitor Son Cycle, which he wrote as Miles Cameron. Cold Iron is the first book in his brand-new fantasy series, called the Masters & Mages series.
I am mostly familiar with Cameron through his historical fiction works, having read and reviewed a couple of books in his Tyrant and Long War series early in my career. I particularly enjoyed the first book in his Long War series, Killer of Men, which set a young protagonist from Plataea on an adventure across ancient Greece and Persia. Unfortunately, I failed to get any of Cameron’s books in the intervening years and was completely unaware that he had written any fantasy books. So when I came across Cold Iron and recognised the author, I was deeply intrigued and thought it would be an interesting book to check out, especially as it had been receiving some great reviews. After mentioning it in one of my Top Ten lists, I decided to check out the audiobook version of this book a few weeks ago. I was especially keen to check it out as the second book in the Masters & Mages series, Dark Forge, has recently been released, although it looks like this second book will be released in a number of different formats throughout the year.
Cold Iron follows Aranthur Timos, a young student at The Academy, a prestigious institute of magic, science and other scholarly pursuits that lies at the heart of a mighty empire. Aranthur, a poor farmer’s son, is not the best student at The Academy, and aside from some slight skill with the sword, nothing sets him apart from any of the other students. But fate has something special in store for Aranthur. Travelling back to his family farm for the holidays, Aranthur stops at a small inn. When bandits attack the owners of the inn, Aranthur steps in to try and help, and in doing so sets a momentous series of events into play. His actions that night inadvertently place him in the middle of a vast and terrible conspiracy, as he comes to the attention of the inn’s other guests, including a powerful priest, a master swordsman, a young gentleman spy and an enigmatic and dangerous beauty.
After returning to The Academy, the results of Aranthur’s actions at the inn indirectly introduce him to a number of new friends that help him excel at his studies. But a series of chaotic events are occurring across the lands. The city surrounding The Academy is in turmoil, as factions and noble houses fight against each other. Worse, refugees are flooding in from lands to the east, driven out of their homes by a group known as the Disciples, followers of a shadowy figure known as the Master, who seek to return the world to an ancient status quo where only the nobles have access to magic. Despite being a simple student, Aranthur keeps finding himself in the centre of the momentous events sweeping the city. Can Aranthur survive all the mysterious events occurring around him, and, if he does, what sort of person will he become?
I absolutely loved this book; it gets a well-deserved five stars from me. Cold Iron is an extremely clever coming-of-age fantasy story set within an immensely detailed and inventive new world. I have found with some of Cameron’s previous works, such as the books in his Chivalry series, that the author has a very particular writing style, such as his propensity to include large amounts of detail in his paragraphs and the utilisation of a somewhat more formal dialogue. This style has always worked well with the author’s historical fiction work, and I felt that this writing style translated across well to this fantasy book. It was reminiscent of some of the older classical fantasy stories, although with some more modern language. This results in the book having a much more unique feel to it, which I found to be quite curious and actually helped draw me into the story.
The overall story of Cold Iron is quite an intriguing fantasy read that places its protagonists and point-of-view character in the centre of a worldwide conspiracy. There are so many elements to this story to enjoy, including an excellent coming-of-age focus. Throughout the course of the book, the protagonist, Aranthur, grows from a poor and insignificant student to a central figure in the fight for kingdoms and the freedom of magic. The story is quite clever as it focuses on a character who, rather than being the dreaded “chosen one” fantasy trope, is instead thrust into events by accidentally being in a certain place at a certain time. I really enjoyed how everything that happens to Aranthur throughout the book is the direct result of the one tavern fight at the start of the book, and he is drawn into the subsequent events or introduced to key characters through sheer coincidence. The resultant conspiracy is deeply intriguing and ties in really well with Cameron’s excellent fantasy elements. I am also a sucker for a storyline involving magical schooling or training, so I loved how this story was set within a magical university and focused quite a bit on the protagonist’s training. All of these elements work together to produce an incredible overall narrative that I really enjoyed listening to.
For this new series, Cameron has come up with a fun and detailed fantasy world. The Masters & Mages series is set in a sprawling world that features a number of diverse human nations. Only a small part of this world is explored within this first book, although there are quite a number of references to nations outside of the central settings, and events occurring in these locations impact on the main story. This world appears to be in a post-medieval point of its history, with early firearms starting to be utilised, although older technologies such as crossbows are still in use. The setting comes across a bit like Italy or France during a similar time period, but with a magical edge to it that works quite well. The main setting is a gigantic and rich city of canals and elaborate architecture that hosts The Academy, and this serves as a perfect location for the intriguing, conspiracy-laden fantasy story. The city is filled with a huge number of factions, refugees and competing noble houses, creating quite a significant amount of internal political strife which plays into the story quite well. There are also some examinations of some more rural areas within the world, and Cameron does a spectacular job of presenting the more down-to-earth folk that live in these locations. The locations featured within this book were very well done and I look forward to seeing what new lands are explored in future books.
One of the most interesting things about the setting of the book was how several of the issues and plot points have some interesting parallels with modern issues. For a bit of context, the world that the Masters & Mages series is set within a world where a historical revolution installed a series of reforms that granted magic and education to the lower classes. Now even quite poor families have access to basic magic that cleanses water, helps create fires and heal people, resulting in a better class of life for the common people. At the same time, women are able to attend classes at The Academy and learn magic and other skills. The book’s antagonists are determined to reverse these reforms and return magic to the rich and the nobles and ensure women have no more power. This has resulted in a number of invasions and wars that have resulted in a huge number of refugees entering the city and other locations, much to dismay of the city’s rich and powerful. I found the motivations of the antagonists to be very interesting, and it is easy to see some real-life parallels. Intolerance towards refugees is a major issue at the moment, and it is deeply fascinating to see this reflected in a work of fantasy fiction. In addition, the book featured quite a lot of intolerance towards people of certain nationalities, including the protagonist’s nationality.
Highlights of Cold Iron the spectacular action sequences that occur throughout the book. There are a substantial number of fight scenes throughout the book, featuring magic, firearms, crossbows and swordplay. All of these action elements are pretty impressive, and I especially love some of the larger sequences, where all the above methods of combat are being utilised by both sides. For the most part, only some basic magical techniques are used within fights, which while intriguing, do not result in any eye-popping scenes. However, there is one sequence where two powerful magic users fight in front of the protagonist, and he sees the destructive potential of their respective magic abilities. Without a doubt, the most amazing action element is the swordplay. There is quite a focus on swords throughout the book as the protagonist spends a large amount of time learning and training with them before using them in a number of duals and fights. Cameron’s insane attention to detail and incredible knowledge of sword fighting makes these scenes absolutely incredible and produce some amazing fight sequences that feel extremely realistic. These sword fight scenes are some of the best parts of this book and I really enjoyed having them narrated to me.
I had a lot of fun with several of the characters in this book. The main character, Aranthur, is a pretty good protagonist who goes through some substantial character development in this book. Not only does he grow to appreciate different points of view and increase his abilities as a warrior and scholar but he actually learns from his mistakes, although in some cases, such as when it comes to learning about women, it takes a little too long. The other characters featured within Cold Iron are an interesting group. My favourites include Ansu, a noble from another land who brings some amusing cultural differences; Tiy Draco, a gentleman spy with unclear allegiances; and Dahlia, the feisty warrior student who highlights the abilities and determination of the female students in The Academy. My favourite character, however, had to be Sasan, the sarcastic and fatalistic refugee and drug addict who Aranthur attempts to help. Sasan has some of the best lines in the entire book, and his exclamations and actions when under the effect of an enhancement spell were really funny. Each of these characters is a lot of fun, and I will be intrigued to see what future development awaits them.
I listened to Cold Iron’s audiobook format, narrated by Mark Meadows, and I had a good time listening to this book. Clocking in at around 19 and a half hours, this is a fairly long audiobook; however, I found myself really drawn into the story, so I was able to get through it fairly quickly. I personally thought that the audiobook format was the best way to enjoy this book due to the huge amount of detail and worldbuilding that went into this story. I was able to focus on all the details a hell of a lot more by listening to them, and I think this helped me follow the plot with a lot less confusion. Cold Iron’s action sequences are particularly good when narrated, and I found that the intense and elaborate sword sequences were really enhanced by this format. Mark Meadows does a fantastic job of narrating Cold Iron and I really appreciated his work in bringing the story to life. I felt that the voice Meadows used for the narration of Cold Iron was very appropriate, and I liked listening to all the descriptions and actions that Cameron had inserted into his story. Meadows also came up with a range of unique voices for his various characters, each of which did a great job of conveying the character’s emotions and personality. Part of the reason why I liked the character of Sasan so much was because of the voice that Meadows created for him and used to exclaim some of his best lines. Overall, I would strongly recommend that readers interested in checking out Cold Iron should try its audiobook format, and I was quite glad that I did.
Before I wrap up, I just wanted to make a quick comment on Cold Iron’s cover art. Cold Iron has two separate covers: the one I have included at the top of this review, and the one I have placed below. I loved both of these covers individually, and I felt that they contrasted with each other quite nicely. The first cover is very classy and really exudes an old-school fantasy vibe, which I think represents Cameron’s storytelling style quite well. However, I did enjoy the more modern look of the second cover, and I really enjoyed the artist’s use of the simple, but effective black and white colour scheme. Both are very impressive, and I have to say that the artists did a fantastic job with both of them.
I was very impressed by my first foray into Cameron’s fantasy writings. Cold Iron is an exceptional piece of fantasy fiction and an easy five stars from me. This book’s story was incredibly well written and contained a very compelling plot filled with wide-reaching conspiracies, magic and excellent characters. Set in a brilliant new fantasy world, Cold Iron is an excellent start to the Masters & Mages series and sets it up as a fantasy series to watch out for. Some paperback versions of the second book in the series, Dark Forge, came out a short while ago, and I am tempted to order a copy in. However, I may wait until September, when the audiobook version is released, as I found this was a great way to enjoy the first book. Cold Iron is an outstanding read, and I am really glad I went back and checked out this excellent 2018 release.