I am a major fan of McKenna’s outstanding canon, The Tales of Einarinn, which comprises five books starting with The Thief’s Gamble and the next series set in the same world – even better – in my opinion, The Aldabreshin Compass which starts with Southern Fire. These books are bursting with memorable, exciting characters, fast-paced action and wonderful scenery. If you like intelligent, well written Fantasy, set in complex world and haven’t yet come across these books, then you are in for a treat.
And why am I enthusing over her former nine books? Because Irons in the Fire is something of a disappointment in comparison. In my opinion, McKenna commits an unforgivable sin by treating us to a major info-dump, masquerading under the name of a Prologue. There are several pages of details including place names, ruling families and politics, along with their potted histories, without any attempt to nuance this information through character viewpoint. If I hadn’t read her earlier work, the book would have gone flying across the room at that point, along with a few choice words about the laziness of world building by dressing it up as some kind of Almanac… What further upsets me, is that the rest of the book is sufficiently well written that such a Prologue is actually unnecessary. Or – if she felt that she needed to help readers absorb her undoubtedly complicated world, this lump of information could have been offered as an Appendix.
The country of Lescar was carved out of the collapsing Tormalin Empire by ambitious men who all felt entitled to seize power for themselves. Now six rival dukedoms are ruled by their descendants, who all lay claim to the crown of the High King. Dukes pursue their ambitions through strategic alliances and strength of arms while their duchesses plot marriages and discrete pacts.
Meanwhile, ordinary people struggle to raise crops and families amid constant turmoil. Now a mismatched band of exiles are agreed that the time has come for a change. Can a small group put an end to generations of intractable misery? Perhaps. After all, a few stones falling in the right place can set a landslide in motion. But who can predict what the consequences will be, when all the dust has settled?
It is an intriguing proposition, charting the gradual rise of a revolution within a fantasy world. And when I got into the story, it is an entertaining, enjoyable read. The characters are well-rounded with good development, the world is complex and realistic and the plot progresses at a reasonable pace. But her outstanding achievement in this book – for me – is her treatment of magic. The best fantasy always ensures that magic users don’t just wave around some kind of ensorcelled artefact with an accompanying puff of coloured smoke… However, McKenna’s magical system is completely embedded within the political structure, which seems utterly believable to me. And it takes long, painful effort to fine-tune the mental disciplines necessary to use it, while profoundly changing the practioners.
While the book completes the story arc, like many fantasy series, it finishes at a point where we are set up for the next instalment. And – yes – I will be reading it. McKenna’s fantasy is too well-written and thought provoking to ignore. I just wish she had left out that darned Prologue!