Summary: Is the Living Blade real or just a legend?
With it… Prince Bashan could win back his kingdom. Master Telen Diaz can free himself of the burden from his past. Owen Smith sees a once-in-a-lifetime chance to gain untold knowledge.
…but for Noraya Smith, the Living Blade will bring nothing but suffering and sorrow.
Review: First off, I want to take a moment to praise the person who did the cover art for this book. I don’t usually talk much about cover art, but this is an exception largely because it’s notable that a self-published book has such high-quality art. When most people think self-pub, they usually associate it with covers that look slapped together in MS Paint, or that have okay art on the cover but not really the sort of art that one usually associates with book covers. But let’s be perfectly honest here; if you hadn’t seen that this review was for a book associated with the SPFBO, would you look at that cover and think that it was a traditionally-published book, with all the associated work and assistance that goes into getting an awesome-looking cover? I know I would.
And it’s interesting how that can be the difference between attracting readers and not. As much as we saw we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, we do exactly that all the time. We see a book’s cover and we decide from there whether we even want to look at the back-of-the-book description. It’s the first impression, that one that you don’t get a second chance to make. And so far as I’m concerned, it’s worth pointing out when books do that well, especially in a field where the pervading stereotype is that they don’t.
Anyway, enough about cover art. What did I think of the book itself?
The story centres around Nora, a young woman who left her village with her twin brother, and who runs headfirst into trouble pretty much immediately. She encounters Diaz, a half-wight pilgrim who is assisting a fallen prince in attaining the legendary Living Blade, the sword that once cut down the gods and that will allow the prince to regain his throne. But there’s opposition, naturally, and Nora is half-pulled into a deadly quest and half walks there willingly. But as much as Nora moves forward and seeks the training she desires, she can’t entirely escape the past that shaped her all along.
Whitecastle writes an interesting world in Touch of Iron. It’s not stand-out unique, but it does play with some interesting elements. I admittedly haven’t seen too much with wights (outside of books based on fantasy RPG worlds, that is), let alone half-wights, so that was an unexpected addition to the story. The way twins were handled also caught my attention, with their relation to certain deities. Not the first time I’ve seen anti-twin sentiments in a secondary-world setting, but it’s another rarity — at least in the books I’ve read over the years — so it was cool to see. Both the issue of half-wights and the viewpoint of a twin allow for some good presentations of prejudice and racism to show through, although it was fairly minor, and mostly dealt with through hiding and contemplation of what people might think, rather than showing any overt animosity toward certain characters. Nora has strong feelings about people not abandoning newborn twins to the elements, as is tradition, but she only openly opposes such treatment in one scene, and doesn’t really force the issue with others who believe that twins are cursed or unworthy.
Not that I can blame her. Not everyone is made to fight every fight, and Nora’s cause wasn’t the equal treatment of twins. If expedient, she would pretend to be somebody’s wife, or student, or whatever was needed at the time; it wasn’t her priority to force the issue at every step, however much it may have rankled her. It was more important to find the Living Blade, to be trained by Diaz, to survive.
Of course, this “you can’t right every wrong” attitude in especially difficult to deal with when rape is involved. And it comes up more than once. So, consider this a bit of a trigger warning in regard to this book: if that sort of treatment of rape is one that’s particularly triggering for you, then maybe this isn’t the book for you. It’s difficult to read, in any case, and as much as I can understand the cold practicality behind not being able to save someone from being raped to death if all it will accomplish is you dying too, that doesn’t make my blood boil any less.
I found Diaz talking about his heritage to be something that provoked reflection, and it resonated with me to a degree. I’m paraphrasing, but he talks about how humans consider him half-wight, and wights consider him half-human, and so he fits in nowhere. That struck a chord, and I imagine it will do something similar to readers who feel torn between two halves of themselves, be it culturally or racially or through some other aspect of themselves.
Though while the world that Nora moves through isn’t a monoculture (there are regional differences in dress, food, manners, etc), there are strong common threads through every place that we see. Every area she travels feels the same way about twins, for instance, and for the same reasons. Every place knows the same legends, about the same gods, with no real differences, or even slightly different interpretations that fit their particular subculture a bit better. It’s hard to tell if this is due to a lack of more detailed culture-building, or because it’s difficult to tell the scope of Nora’s travels. Though at one point she spends months going from one place to the next, that could be only a small part of the world, equivalent to, say, crossing the United States. You’ll find differences between the east coast and the west coast, but not so many that you’ll find an entirely different and unfamiliar way of living. It may be that Nora’s travels only take her that far, when the rest of the world is much larger and much more varied. It’s hard to say.
Whitecastle’s writing is a treat to read, polished and with good flow, even pacing, and a good balance between realistic dialogue and observant narration. I loved the dialogue that Whitecastle writes, and I think it’s safe to say that it’s probably my favourite aspect of her writing. Her characters live through their words, they pop off the page and feel like real people you might talk to on the street, and I loved that! Definitely a skill worthy of praise, right there.
One weakness that I saw in the novel, however, was a general lack of character motivation, or at least my understanding of it. There was plenty of action to drive the story along, lots of events to keep things moving, but I found myself struggling to figure out why any of it was happening in the first place. I mean, yes, there’s a fight scene because bandits are attacking, but why are they attacking? Owen wants to be a pilgrim, but why? Master Cumi betrays everyone, but why? Reasons are given, but they don’t really seem to explain what properly motivated the character in the first place. Especially with Master Cumi. We know that she uses a type of magic that’s seen as evil (in part because of the potential it has to harm as well as heal, but her reason for betraying people seems to be little deeper than, “I’m tired of pretending that evil isn’t inside me, mwahaha!” We don’t really see her be dissatisfied with healing instead of harming. We don’t see her struggle with moral choices. We don’t even see her mutter angrily under her breath. We just see her arrange for a buttload of people to die so that she can go somewhere else and openly practice the kind of magic she uses, instead of hiding it. So we get an explanation, sure, but because we see no real demonstration of her motivation beyond her outright saying it, it feels hollow and weak, and entirely unlike the character we’d gotten to know by that point. Character motivations sometimes get revealed much later on into the story, but by that point they often feel like afterthoughts, because we’ve seen so little of what’s been pushing characters to do anything beyond reactions through most of the story.
Aside from that, though, there’s a whole lot to like about Touch of Iron, and at least at the moment, I think Whitecastle’s novel stands a strong chance of being passed to the final round in the SPFBO. And even if it doesn’t go further, it’s still a good novel that’s worth reading, and there’s plenty of potential for the story to go further. Touch of Iron is a self-published novel that could go far, carried on the strength of Whitecastle’s writing.