(2009) Juliet E.Mckenna, Solaris, £12.99, pbk, 517 pp, ISBN 978-1-844-16620-6
'Irons in the Fire' is the first book in a series of chronicles about the conquered state of Lescar. This story begins in the city of Vanam, in the State of Ensaimin. The principal character of the story is Tathrin a student assisting the fur trader Wyess: he is part clerk, part apprentice. He makes you want to struggle through getting used to the new realm: where the dates are based on the seasons; the cities are dukedoms or other kinds of city-states. In fact there are warring dukes everywhere: knights, princes, kings, high kings, an empire and wizards, and guilds of merchants and other crafts, all out for their own profit and celebrating certain gods. It is the typical dungeons and dragons scenario; the rich get richer and the poor stay poor unless they can get an angle on something. The hero does not like fighting, as there is so much in this land there is no need. For instance he shies back when the local knights kill a pig for the spring festival, but his 'Master' takes him into the furriers' guildhall for safety, warmth and a drink (wine).
Yet for all the plenty in the land, once in the building, you can see it is a case of 'this is how the other half lives': everyone is well dressed, that is the merchants are, there are lots of servants, but all the styles are Vanam, local, and the two Lescaris (Wyess is one too) are hard put to find one of their countrymen, though they have been told they gather here at festival times. Equally hard to find are their countrywomen: although females are mainly looked down on here there are plenty of them, prostitutes, servants, and fussy women in flouncy dresses. The Merchants moan about how their goods cannot get through the bad roads, road tolls, ice, fighting (bandits and war in general) and ships being attacked by pirates. The most grouchy fur trader is called Kierst, and he argues with a blacksmith over how he makes money out of the war by selling wire for chain mail and making weapons, then complains about the pirates, while the smith says the judges are offering rewards to privateers who will fight against them, and have appealed to the Archmage, but he doubts if the wizards, who live on a nearby archipelago of islands and make the glasses they are drinking out of, as well as guiding the ships with weather-lore, will 'dirty their hands'. Those who might though, are mercenaries, whom the empire has offered to pay in gold. When Kierst insults the oldest merchant there (who is understanbly upset with the war and losing his wife and daughters as well as his sons) Wyess just thumps him, but he is not arrested, presumably because the others just think he deserves it. We then learn about about Karn, who is a spy, in a inn on the bridge of the last safe town in Draximal, Eminal, and meets one of these women in flounces fleeing with a man in a carriage, and changing horses. The inn keepers insist you change horses at the border as they do not trust anyone. Karn is spying for master Hamare, and he does it by gambling and drinking with the men and having sex with the women. Bandits and Mercenaries including some blond small tough Mountain men take the toll bridge to get money from the militia and make them walk back to town naked. He has enough money to go over the bridge and report to his Master. These spymasters who can sell information are the only ones who know what's going on: Tathrin, after explaining the historical situation of his country to his fellow clerks, takes the old merchant who disliked war to one called Aremil, and they plan to unite both rebels and exiles for a revolution which will take them on adventures while fighting to bring lasting peace and a bit more equality for the poor.
This book may be hard to get into but bear with it: it is full of good description and its characters and scenarios draw you in. Juliet Mckenna is a masterful writer. Though this novel is fantasy, not too much magic is used but it there and is valued by the characters, a bit like science is now. I can recommend this title to genre enthusiasts. But even if you like a good sword and sorcery read ensure with this one that you have plenty of time to do it as it looks like we are in for a long saga. Of course for some that it a joy.
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