Irons in the Fire: Bland characters, bad dialogue, dull set-up

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book review Juliet McKenna Irons in the FireIrons in the Fire by Juliet E. McKenna

Contemporary wisdom holds that a fantasy novel should include the following non-exclusive elements and that they, or at least tantalizing glimpses of them, should be apparent from the beginning:

  1. distinctive characters whom the reader can like, relate to,or watch with concerned or morbid fascination
  2. a fascinating world
  3. a conflict, crisis, or unrealized desire that meaningfullyimpacts said characters and world

Ideally, a brisk (or at least smooth) pace and clean, crisp prose combine with these elements to create a lucid, vivid, captivating dream that, as is commonly stated, “sucks the reader in.”

Unfortunately, I found the latest tale of Juliet McKenna’s signature world of Einarinn, Irons in the Fire, lacking in each of these elements, and in light of this and the number of other books on my reading list, I decided to move on without finishing it.

Irons in the Fire is one of the most slowly developing fantasy books I can recall. It opens, of all things, with a gravedust-dry excerpt from a scholarly political almanac that purports to inform the reader — duchy by duchy — of the statuses of the six conflicting duchies in the country of Lescar. (The plot focuses on a handful of characters hoping to end the perpetual stalemate that, reportedly, is causing the people of Lescar to suffer.) The story then shifts to the foreign city of Vanam and the scholar/clerk Tathrin, a young Lescari exile who aspires to be one of these revolutionaries. But Tathrin, who is the main character in 14 of the book’s 38 chapters, is simply a bland fantasy-youth stereotype, and neither he nor the generic medieval flavor of the world provide any spark to enliven the opening chapters, which can be summarized like this:

  1. Tathrin has a flashback and then goes with his new boss to a gathering for Lescari exiles.
  2. Tathrin listens to an info-dumping talk between his boss and other merchants, which is interrupted by a patriotic elder.
  3. In Lescar, someone named Karn watches mercenaries take over a bridge.
  4. Tathrin talks with a friend (more info-dumping), gets his father’s mercantile weights certified, and goes to see the patriotic elder.
  5. Aremil (Tathrin’s friend and a crippled exile with noble blood) meets the patriotic elder (more info-dumping) and talks with Tathrin.
  6. Tathrin is visited by the patriotic elder (more info-dumping about Tathrin and Aremil), who takes Tathrin to meet two other potential revolutionaries. Tathrin buys a map book and thinks.
  7. In Lescar, the Duchess Litasse attends a meeting with her duke-husband, his spymaster, and Karn (more info-dumping). After Karn and the duke leave, she gets cuddly with the spymaster … but they still keep talking a little longer.

Seven chapters of unremarkable introductions and set-up, by way of often stilted conversations that include a numbing amount of information about politics and commerce. (And no viewpoint characters “on the ground” in Lescar to make the dukes’ conflicts visceral or meaningful.) Clearly, the world is detailed, but at least in the beginning, the details drag the plot to a virtual standstill. (And the conspiring revolutionaries plot can be done well — magnificently, even, as demonstrated by Guy Gavriel Kay‘s Tigana.) The unremarkable characters failed to hold my interest, and the writing is adequate but undermined by semi-archaic language and clichés (e.g. “no longer feeling as if she were walking on eggshells, p. 152).

Hard-core fans of medieval fantasy may wish to give this one a passing glance, and perhaps someone will find that the novel accelerates to an amazing conclusion. If so, please submit a guest review here so that others will have a second opinion.


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ROB RHODES was graduated from The University of the South and The Tulane University School of Law and currently works as a government attorney. He has published several short stories and is a co-author of the essay “Sword and Sorcery Fiction,” published in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading. In 2008, Rob was named a Finalist in The L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest. Rob retired from FanLit in September 2010 after more than 3 years at FanLit. He still reviews books and conducts interviews for us occasionally. You can read his latest news at Rob's blog.

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