THE IRON CROWN by L.L.Macrae (SPFBO 7 Finalist Review)
And so we come to the end of our second week of final month SPFBO finalist reviews, with the last of the those finalists to miss out on a top three place. Heavy lies this crown.
Fenn’s first and only memory is finding himself in the middle of a forest, face to face with a dragon spirit mocking him, all knowledge gone apart from his own name.
Lost and confused, his only hope for answers is Calidra—a woman living on the edge of the world with her partner. Forced to return home when her father dies, Calidra has put off facing her estranged mother for seven years, and she begrudgingly helps Fenn, forging papers for him so he can avoid the Queen’s Inquisitors.
But her mother is the least of her worries when they discover an ancient enemy is rising again. It should be impossible with the Iron Crown in power—and Fenn is terrified he might unwittingly be playing a part in the war’s resurgence.
Surrounded by vengeful spirits and powerful magic, Fenn’s desperate attempt to find his way home might well alter the fate of Tassar, and every power in it.
A new high fantasy series bursts into life with the DRAGON SPIRITS who reign supreme in the magic-drenched world of Tassar.
Finalist in SPFBO7
The cover has a good professional feel to it, with a kind of enigmatic iconography and an eye catching colour scheme. It’s the kind of image that would make me think about picking the book off the shelf to check the blurb which is – after all – the job of a cover. The opening set up with an amnesiac protagonist plunged into peril makes a good hook. The book quickly introduces what, for me is its most compelling element – the idea of spirits that condense around places where people and “life” has accumulated. It sort of reminded me of the ways stars are born out of the gravitational collapse and concentration of clouds of dust and hydrogen. However, very quickly I found that the amnesiac motif seemed to be used as an excuse for some quite exposition heavy prose, with the memory challenged Fenn having a lot of context explained to him.
I feel a little bit conflicted about this book. There were elements that I really enjoyed, like the dragon spirits, and others that left quite a sour taste, such as the ableism in Jisyel’s portrayal. I found it to be quite a readable book, and did enjoy the prose, although as others have mentioned, some exposition was a little clunky in some places. It definitely did not feel as chonky a read as the page count suggests, which was a real plus for me by the time I started reading.
The cover of The Iron Crown stands out by the vibrant color choices made. The dark green background with golden flames among the crown, circle, and the dragon is aglow with ember bits floating around. This is a digitally created cover, and I’m not unfamiliar with some of the design elements; they are popular in graphic uses for websites, etc. The spine looks superb and the ratio of the blurb font/size is perfect. There is a map of Etrovia in the front o the book as well as one of the Realm of Tassar.
The prose of this novel is very engaging and highly readable. I was easily swooped away by the story and found it to be the right amount of fascinating and intriguing.
Sometimes the characters felt a little too young to me, or insecure, but the premise of the novel was great. I too noticed some spelling errors.
The cover of this one is OK, I much prefer original artwork on covers compared to graphic design. Even so, this one is interesting and if I were to see it on a shelf–or amongst a group of covers on a website–I’d be interested in reading the back-of-the-book blurb. Once you start reading though, I think you’ll find a lot to like, at least I did. The opening is well-paced and gives enough introduction to the world and characters that you want to keep reading while at the same time avoiding large infodumps. Like Theo, I really enjoyed the dragon spirits and the way they come into being around places filled with life. It’s a fun and fascinating take on a sort of life magic trope. Unlike Theo, however, I didn’t mind the way characters explained things to Fenn. I will admit that there were one or two instances where this was a little clunky, but overall I think it worked well to get the reader up to speed on the world. Overall, I didn’t notice it and I think that’s exactly what you want with world building exposition.
I did notice, however, several typos or other issues in the manuscript. Certainly not on every page, but enough that I feel I need to mention it.
Thoughts on… THE CHARACTERS
There are quite a few characters for a reader to engage with, but I didn’t find myself drawn to any of them as much as I would have liked or hoped. Partly, I think this is because these are characters (and a story) that wears its heart on its sleeve. There isn’t much by way of subtext, we get to follow the character’s thought processes and dilemmas in great (and occasionally repetitive) detail. I felt too often I was being told how much Calidra felt love, affection and dependence towards Jisyel, rather than shown it. Calidra’s mother-daughter issues made for an unusual subplot but again it all felt telegraphed a little too openly and obviously.
It took me quite a bit to connect with most of the characters, and I never quite warmed to Calidra. I found her very self-centred and whiny, and her tendency to shout first and ask questions later was very off-putting. At the other end of the scale though, I would probably die for Apollo and would have enjoyed this book considerably more if it was from his POV.
As I mentioned earlier, I did find the way Jisyel was portrayed ableist. Her affliction is completely disabling, affecting every part of her life and how she interacts with the world and other people, and yet was only ever referenced somewhat superficially when it furthered the plot. While this is partly a limitation of only seeing it through other character’s POVs, I think it could have been handled a lot better.
The main cast in this novel is made up of a trio of characters. Fenn, the young man who is washed up on the shore of an island and has no memory of how he made it there and where he came from. Then there is Calidra who takes on Fenn and wants to help and guide him home towards the answers he seeks while making up with her estranged family on the mainland. Jisyel is the bright spot in Calidra’s life and embarks on her own after being separated from the two others while hoping to undo a curse that was laid upon her.
I always enjoy a good villain or a despicable character, and there were a few of those in the novel which made everything very interesting. I found the characters very believable, albeit a bit immature in certain moments. Nothing that led me to not enjoy the novel, but just enough of a hiccup at times. The motivations behind the characters are clear. The development of the plot with a variety of elements and situations thrown at them, lets the characters grow and garner empathy. The mix of them and their plights makes for an interesting cast.
There is a fairly sizable cast in this one, and as a result I think many readers will find someone that connects with them. I found that in the early part of the book Fenn was most interesting to me, perhaps because he was discovering the world along with me as a result of his amnesia. Later on both Selys and Melora ended up being a bit more interesting to me, as I didn’t always understand Fenn’s decision making.
In any case, I found the characters to be engaging overall. They also felt like they belonged in this world.
If I have a complaint about them, it would likely be what Theo mentions, that there is a tendency to tell rather than show. I’d also say that most of the characters lack subtlety in the way they come across and the way they make decisions. Hand-in-hand with this issue is that it felt like few of the characters had much development. Things certainly happened to them, and they made decisions, but I don’t know if I can point to ways in which they are different at the end of the book versus the beginning, with the possible exception of Varlot and Jisyel. On the other hand, I think that the world is interesting enough that I didn’t notice this lack while reading.
Thoughts on… PLOT/STRUCTURE/PACING
There are an interesting range of plots and subplots, but the way they were combined felt a bit random and somehow lacked conviction. Each main character has their goals, Fenn to regain his memories, Calidra to be reconciled with her family, Jiysel to be close to Calidra. But there were places where I felt the plot required the characters to make unwise decisions in order to move in the direction the author wanted. For example an interrogation and subsequent escape where the victim was allowed far too much freedom. In places the plot seems to sustain tension by having characters not say/share what it transpires was obvious information.
The story does have some twists and revelations which are pleasantly surprising but others, for example Jiysel’s peculiar affliction, just raised a whole load of questions for me that I felt the author didn’t address. It’s just that if you looked at the implications it seemed a far more crippling constraint that the story seemed to allow.
The story was well-paced, and I quite enjoyed the overall flow of the book.
Sometimes character decisions seemed inconsistent with their personalities and served more to force the plot in a specific direction, and other times it seemed subplots were shoe-horned in for the sake of conflict, but I was able to overlook that for the most part, as I did enjoy the prose.
Plot, structure, and pacing varied greatly in his novel in all aspects. Sometimes the character’s thoughts outweighed the action, sometimes the pacing was grippingly fast and addicting. I can’t say for anyone else, but most of it worked for me except for the heavy thoughts of the characters at times. In general, I’m not a fan of the memory loss trope, and perhaps, therefore, Fenn was almost too gentle of a character to me, but the shifts and pacing of action and magic had me mostly sucked it. I enjoyed how the POV’s shifted and each lot of characters had to navigate the story differently, and the little chapter cliff hangers were done well. So overall, I was quite satisfied with how this novel read.
I think the plot and pacing of this one were pretty well done. I didn’t come across any places where I really wanted to put the book down and stop reading. It isn’t that The Iron Crown is paced like a thriller. Far from it. Rather, there is just a lot that happens, a number of mysteries and other plot threads that the protagonists have to unravel, and the author does a good job of moving things along and avoiding getting bogged down. It probably helps that there are a number of plots and subplots that interweave with one another and with the motivations of the protagonists. That’s a strength of the book, in my opinion, and an aspect of it that I really enjoyed. There are also some nice twists and surprises at different points that I felt had just enough foreshadowing to make sense but still be fun.
Jisyel’s affliction is one area of plot/subplot that I don’t think was handled well. It is described generally enough that it felt like there would be all sorts of issues, and yet most of those issues never really came up or didn’t seem to be issues. It was confusing and I don’t think it was meant to be. There were a couple other aspects of the plot that felt thin to me as well, particularly when it came to recent history. The Myr were defeated five years ago, but the way some characters talk about it, you’d think it was fifty or a hundred.
Thoughts on… WORLDBUILDING
I think this is where the book shines.
The notion of spirits coming spontaneously into being around concentrations of “life/living matter” is cool. The idea that these spirits might also bond with humans that they “bless” who then acquire powers and protections as avatars or representatives of the spirit is also interesting. The use of giant griffins and the different nations with their prejudices was also an intriguing element.
I was less sure about the magical foe the Myr who, despite their defeat being only five years in the recent past, are illegal to even admit the existence of. I also struggled a little bit with distance in the book and found myself checking the map more often than I usually do in fantasy reads. While one group of characters laboured over long in traveling “there” despite flying some of the way, others seemed to travel “there and back” in what felt like no book time at all.
The dragon spirits were very cool. I really liked how they were so closely tied to their home location that it affects their appearance as well as their magical strength. It added an interesting dimension to the world.
I would have liked to see a bit more clarity in the history of the world. There were inconsistencies between the timeline and how people referred to the war with the Myr that left me a little confused. Some of the political aspects were also confusing to me, and I never quite figured out why travel was so heavily restricted between various areas (it is entirely possible this is a me-thing, and not a book-thing though).
The worldbuilding was fascinating to me. Right away I was taken by the shifting world on the island and the dragon spirits. There is a bit of a mystery behind everything, in a world where there just recently was a war and the inhabitants are still adjusting to the way of life. I liked that broken part about it and how it affected everything. Most novels speak of ancient wars, this world here is still fairly broken. The main characters are sort of solving a mystery and everything is bound by spirits and the danger of the Myr. From the greatest elements to the smallest, this was all really interesting and wonderfully imagined. The worldbuilding is the great strength of this novel I would say.
The worldbuilding is one of my favorite aspects of this novel. The idea of spirits coalescing around areas where life is abundant feels traditional in some ways but very fresh in others. Adding a layer to this, priests are sometimes blessed by the dragon spirit they worship and this gives them interesting powers and abilities. The antagonists of the world, the Myr, are interesting and offer a sort of counterpoint to the dragon spirits. I’m very interested to see how this juxtaposition and opposition is developed in future books in the series. I really enjoyed all those elements of the world, to say nothing of several other cool fantasy elements–Griffins!–and the complexities of the political situation on the continent. I consider myself a fan of epic fantasy, and The Iron Crown has plenty of elements that fans of epic fantasy will enjoy.
Quotations that resonated with you
I liked this simile referring to the scrying powers of the magical Queen of the eponymous Iron Crown
“Her threads of farsight weaved across her empire like a spider’s web, waiting for the tell-tale touch of their enemies.”
And this use of “touch the sea” in a description of a town
“..a sprawling overgrown city that spread down a gentle hill to touch the sea.”
There were some really great passages throughout the book, but I particularly liked this description of Queen Surayo’s castle:
“In other places across the world, gold, silver, and gemstones would lavishly decorate the rooms and corridors in a blatant display of wealth. Here, iron ruled. It was everywhere, from the swords the soldiers carried, to ornamental trinkets dotted in every room. Each and every place could be imbued with Toriaken’s strength in a heartbeat. While some people might see the grey of iron as bland, even distasteful, they were walking down the literal jaws of the dragon.”
There were some great lines in here. I love descriptive and witty sentences and here are a few I highlighted:
It was the cesspit of differing bloodlines, pseudo-royalty, and a steak of stubbornness that would put a mule to shame. It didnt help that the food was terrible and the wine was worse.
Streaks of orange and plum coloured the sky as the last of the light faded. Already, the moon had risen, its jagged northern edge like a gaping mouth ready to swallow the stars.
Calvin: I enjoyed the opening sentences, particularly strength “sucked” from his arms as if from the bog itself:
“Brackish and thick, the putrid sludge pulled Feen deeper in, filling his nose with its awful stench. He flailed, weak, the strength sucked from his arms.”
I like the ideas in the book, the worldbuilding is imaginative. But I would have liked more subtlety and depth in the characters and more rigour in the plotting.
There is so much to enjoy in this book – the worldbuilding, the plot, the prose – but between the ableism and inconsistent actions of characters, I find I can’t enjoy it as much as I want to. MacRae is definitely an author I’ll be keeping an eye out for though, and I look forward to seeing what she writes in the future.
This was such a great read. I would have loved to see a little more agency in Fenn and less contemplation, but the world was incredible and it was very engaging. I was positively surprised over this book and it has me curious how this story continues. The Iron Crown was a great first novel to start and embark on further exploration through the Realm of Tassar in the books to follow.
I really enjoyed this one. The world building is fun and unique, there are plenty of plots and subplots to keep you engaged, and the characters–while not outstanding–generally don’t get in the way and have potential for much more in future entries. I would have liked to have seen a little more attention to detail in some of the decision making of the characters, as well as some of the elements of the plot.
And the All Important Scores
|Rounded to the nearest half mark for Mark||7|