Chris Evans’ debut novel A Darkness Forged in Fire, the first installment in the Iron Elves Trilogy, shows off Evans’s passion for military history and fantasy as he joins the two in a gritty, imaginative marriage where army life and Napoleonic era tactics coexist with fantasy staples. The trilogy continues with The Light of Burning Shadows and will be completed by Ashes of a Black Frost, due for release in summer 2011.
As the story begins in A Darkness Forged in Fire, Konowa Swift Dragon has led his regiment into shame and exile; he murdered a Viceroy and now the honor of the Iron Elves is as bloodied as his hands. A shamed regiment—stripped of everything, including their leader—the once glorious elves are but a stain on the Calahrian Empire’s colors. Konowa, court-marshaled and banished, has had plenty of time to dwell on his predicament as he wanders the dense forests he despises so fervently with only his loyal bengar, Jir, to keep him sane.
But with a darkness on the horizon blacker than Konowa’s mood, the former commander is wrenched from his misery and thrust back into the fray. With a new draft of soldiers to fill his beloved Iron Elves—and not a single elf amongst them—Konowa must face not only the rising elf-witch, the Shadow Monarch, as she vies for domination, but also himself. Deep in the forest, Konowa is ordered to find the scattered original Iron Elves, under the constant scrutiny of an inexperienced, adventure-seeking Prince Tykkin. Charged not only with defeating the rising evil with which his destiny intertwines but also restoring order throughout the Empire, Konowa will soon realize that his black ear-tip—the Shadow Monarch’s mark on her chosen soldiers—cannot be forgotten, and his fate cannot be escaped.
For the Empire
While it is the grander scheme of the Shadow Monarch that underpins the series thus far, without the innovative and insightful details into the Iron Elves as a living, breathing branch of the Imperial army, the notion of a powerful sorceress bent on world destruction would come across as too clichéd. Instead, the Calahrian Empire’s struggle to maintain order as it strives to promote its own brand of progress—as important as defeating the Shadow Monarch—coupled with the raw mechanics of a regiment on the move, actively fighting the forces of the elf-witch while dealing with its own problems brought by injury, death and obligation, present the old cliché in brand new colors: the colors of the Imperial army. Everything is in the name of the Queen, whether Konowa and his men like it or not.
Dwarves need not apply
A regiment smells, and A Darkness Forged in Fire captures this scent in every page. The soldiers of the Iron Elves are diverse and it is through them that the regiment is given life: a religious zealot, a single grudge-bearing elf of the original Iron Elves, a sly trouble-maker, and a mismatched pair whose camaraderie invites the reader deeper into the unit.
Sworn into the Iron Elves are Yimt, a veteran dwarf whose stories will make your hair curl, and Alwyn, a reluctant, bespectacled young man whose eyesight is as bad as Yimt’s manners and whose courage is often shaken but never shattered. Together, Alwyn and Yimt—the only dwarf in the unit, sworn in by cheek alone—pull the reader to the level of the soldiers, away from the lofty, tense world in which Konowa—at the side of the prince—exists in the unit. Evans offers a real taste of what life in the cursed Iron Elves is like through the friendship of Alwyn and Yimt.
As a counterpart to the grit of the Iron Elves, the reader is given a view of those opposed to the Empire, though not as the Iron Elves’ adversaries, but as companions and allies. Visyna Tekoy—high-born noble from Elfkyna, sent to drag Konowa from exile—wields a gentle magic and even gentler respect for nature that clashes with Konowa’s strong detestation of the forests of his birth, despite the seeds of turbulent romance planted between the two. Another female seeks to balance out the thick macho cast—or would, if she weren’t brasher than most of the men combined. Rallie, official reporter for the Queen, is a cigar-smoking old crone, who, while she is more than she first seems, remains a constant oracle, doling out guidance and advice to Konowa and to the unit. She delivers both wit and wisdom as she sketches her way through trouble, chain-smoking all the while. Although brash, Rallie’s subtle gentility and mysterious powers make her a close confidant for Visyna’s gripes about Konowa and the Empire.
The style is straightforward without droning on, and while details about the setting are presented, they’re not as important to Evans as the plot. The setting is explained as the story progresses, and little time is devoted to the background of the situation. Enough is divulged and explained meticulously to allow the reader to continue happily and immerse themselves in the world, although readers expecting a military-standard, encompassing description of the Empire’s rise will find themselves disappointed.
Keep it moving
The weakest point of the book is movement, especially during battles; it appears at times that Evans has completely forgotten to move his characters as they fight. This is especially true of the final battle of the book, where it seems Konowa and another officer observe the fight from stationary places, like cardboard cut outs, when in fact, the narrative and dialogue suggest they actively participate. Furthermore, the descriptions of the elf-witch’s magic and its effects, especially during battles, bring down the overall excellence of the book, as sometimes it is just too difficult to grasp precisely what is transpiring, and the reader needs to understand the narrative to understand the resulting situation.
Why should you read this book?
A Darkness Forged in Fire is a different take on commonplace fantasy elements, combining both sorcery and military conquest with classic sword-clashing and a struggle to save the world from death and darkness. It is a vivid and gripping debut by an imaginative writer whose strengths far outweigh his weaknesses, and whose original, vibrant characters bring the world to life in place. If you’re a fan of elves, but fancy something grittier, something different, then give Konowa and his Iron Elves a try.
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