Cold Iron – Not My Speed, But A Great Book

41spu0t5ddl._sx331_bo1204203200_I am playing a little bit of catch up this week and knocked out some books from last year I was unable to get around to reading. One of these books was Cold Iron, by Miles Cameron. Many of you likely haven’t heard of Cameron, but he is a bit of an underground superstar. While he is not well known, he seems to have a particularly fervent niche following that absolutely loves his work. This work primarily consists of a grimdark epic fantasy series called The Traitor Son Cycle (the first book is The Red Knight) which is five books long, each of which is massive. I think a lot of what makes Cameron stand out as an author is his unique narrative style and prose. It is very distinctive, favoring more detailed descriptives and intricate worldbuilding over dialogue, and it tends to be very polarizing. Unfortunately, when I read The Red Knight I found myself in the “not a fan” group of the split, but with Cold Iron, I was hoping to give Cameron a second chance because I loved his new premise.

Cameron’s new series follows the story of Aranthur, a young man attending a magical university in “The City” where he is hoping to learn to be a mage. He is from a rural farming community with fairly successful parents who saved up a bit to send him there, and he has high hopes for making a future for himself as a Magus. Interestingly, this all changes during a chance encounter on his way home for spring break, where he leaps to the defense of some innocents with a sword he bought on a whim – thus beginning his newfound journey to become a swordsman in a world of magic.

The premise of Cold Iron is as simple as it is captivating – a reversal on the “boy discovers he’s a magic prodigy” trope. The idea of someone taking up the sword in a world of people throwing fire seemed intriguing and possibly ridiculous, and I was hooked from page one. Cameron paints an impressively detailed world that takes some time to get familiarized with. He makes up a number of words and terms that you need to slowly learn, and while they do help characterize the culture, they also make it hard to read the book at any speed. The pace of Cold Iron overall is super slow and if you are not up to a thoughtful meandering book this might not be for you.

The characters are also very deep. Aranthur is a complex bundle of emotions, often favoring curiosity and manners over all else. He feels like a gentleman scholar, who is unsure and unconfident due to his young age, and he is an easy protagonist to rally behind. The side cast is all also deep and varied, which helps a lot with the slow pace of the book. By this I mean, although you spend a huge part of the book sitting around tables listening to the cast small talk – there is enough variety and complexity to the personalities in play that conversations are engrossing despite being about nothing. However, all of these positives still didn’t help me get past my principle problem with Cameron’s work – I simply do not like his prose.

To be perfectly clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Cameron’s prose, it is just not to my personal preference. His narration is very slow and meticulous, preferring to spend a lot of time diving into the thoughts and observations of his characters. I feel he likes to focus on the small things going on around his characters, the minute coming and goings of people going about their daily tasks. This style does an incredible job painting a very vivid picture of his characters, but probably due to my ADHD, I tend to find it slow and boring. Mechanically his writing is very impressive, and just because I didn’t like it does not mean you (my reader) won’t.

I didn’t finish Cold Iron. I got about 70% of the way through because I was heavily invested in the story before the slow pacing of the narration just calcified my interest in continuing. If you are the kind of person who lives for dialogue and fast-paced action in a series, you might have the same issues I did with Cold Iron. But, if you are ok with taking things slow, and find the idea of full immersion in a medieval European fantasy setting appealing, then I definitely think you should pick up this book despite my reservations. Cold Iron has a story, and a premise, worth reading – even if that reader isn’t me.

Rating: Cold Iron – 6.5/10
-Andrew

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The Curse Of Chalion – Undeserving Of Obscurity

61886As I continue to dig through my older to-read pile, I have been hitting a lot of books that my opinions of could be charitably described as “late to the party”. One exception to this case might be a lesser known classic that I would love to draw your attention to: The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold. Those who know it almost always love it, but I have been finding that many avid readers (myself included until recently) know little about it. For those of you unfamiliar with her, Lois McMaster Bujold is a quite famous author best known for her Vorkosigan Saga – a science fiction series epic in size that actually just won the Hugo for best series this year. However, Bujold has written a number of books in various genres, and one of her most highly regarded, though still lesser known, is a semi standalone fantasy novel called The Curse of Chalion. The book technically has both a prequel and a sequel, but they both seem to only tangentially follow the events of Chalion so I am going to treat it as a standalone.

Chalion’s plot is a bit difficult to describe, as it is one of those books where the point is less about what happens and more about the emotional journey it takes you on. The story follows Cazaril, a middle aged disenfranchised nobleman. We meet Cazaril at the start of the book just after he has escaped life as a slave and is traveling back to friends of his youth – hoping they will remember and employ him. Upon arriving at the estate of Chalion where he was once a page, he is recognized and soon given a job as a tutor for a princess. The book then spends a significant amount of time developing the cast of characters, exploring Cazaril’s backstory, fleshing out a well-built world, and introducing the endgame of the plot: the house of Chalion has an age old curse that must be broken. A large portion of the book revolves around its religious structure and the worship of a family of five gods (The Father, Mother, Son, Daughter, and Bastard) that all represent different aspects of life. I found that Bujold’s interesting take on Gods, and their involvement in everyone’s life, was one of my favorite elements of the book and really gave her world a unique feel.

This is a gross oversimplification of the story because the writing in Chalion is very much a slow burn. Bujold’s writing style reminds me very much of one of my favorite authors, Guy Gavriel Kay, in its slow pace and beautiful prose. Fortunately the slow pacing is very enjoyable because the cast of characters, both protagonists and antagonists, are excellently written and pleasent to be around. Chalion accomplishes the rare feat of showing some of the cast grow up over time and getting you invested in how they change as a person. This is particularly impressive because as I mentioned the story is contained to a single book. To make up for this, the book is extremely large and I would not recommend it to those who are looking for breakneck pacing and action. Chalion feels almost like the literary version of a gentleman, preferring to resolve all conflicts with words and discussion as opposed to combat.

As mentioned before, the prose in this novel is gorgeous. I found myself presented with an endless stream of quotes that I was sending to friends because they were profound and wonderful. Bujold has an outlook on life and a way with words that combined make her narrative voice a joy to read. An additional major focus of the book is on romance, and I think you would truly have to be dead inside to not enjoy it. The cast is charming, loveable, and genuine and watching the various members slowly come together is simply heartwarming.

The Curse of Chalion is food for the soul and a gorgeous piece of writing. It is a shame that I constantly see it on underread and underrated fantasy lists because it was one of the most warm books I have read this year. If you have the patience for a book with a slower pace or are looking for a story with a heart of gold I definitely recommend you check out this self-contained story. In the meantime, I am clearly going to have to check out The Vorkosigan Saga to get some more time with Bujold’s narrative voice.

Rating: The Curse of Chalion – 8.5/10