- The Good: Action-packed and gory war fantasy
- The Bad: Confusing politics and large cast of characters
- The Literary: Fantastic characterization of an emotional journey and descent into despair
Xina, daughter of Teiko, returns from a hunting trip with a group of other youngsters in a communal rite of passage to find her village invaded by the Kai Ree, her hut on fire, and her family dead. She runs into the wilderness alone and days later, near exhaustion and unable to defend herself, is picked up by a group of young warriors called the Iron Gift. She wakes in a foreign world of mountains and mist, farmers and craftsmen, and knights and tournaments in the town of Ferro Point, led by the beautiful Lady Josephine.
Xina grieves the loss of her family, her village, and her old way of life, as she struggles to find a place in Ferro Point. She works and resides with the Iron Gift, even if she isn’t one of them. She apprentices with the blacksmith, builds some confidence, and begins to find a stable home. But when Lady Josephine calls for swords against the threat of the Grey Men, Xina volunteers to join the Iron Gift and fight alongside those with whom she feels safest.
I love Xina’s emotional journey of grief and uncertainty as she navigates the world of Ferro Point. It’s not often a new fantasy world is explored through the lens of a quiet, lost little girl of fourteen. She works hard, trusting those around her, but is cautious to create deep emotional ties. She’s also naive. Even though her blacksmith calls the fight against the Grey Men another of Josephine’s foolish expeditions, Xina’s loyalty is to Ferro Point and Lady Josephine.
And that’s all the setup for the real meat of the story. Xina and the Iron Gift set out into the Forest of Death, tracking and killing the Grey Men who threaten Lady Josephine. I admit this section of the book surprises me in it’s seriousness. The road to win a fight honorably descends into the brutal realities of war quite quickly. Reminiscent of All Quiet on the Western Front, Xina is confronted with extreme physical and mental stress that begins to reverse the emotional progress she made in Ferro Point. She sees friends die, she kills, and worse, she sees just how far brutality extends on both sides, including by herself.
I won’t spoil the ending, but there’s another surprise in store for Xina that upends her world yet again, when she’s lost nearly everything and everyone for whom she cares. Interestingly, the turn is related to the larger political situation in Ferro Point, which helps explain why the politics of the Grey Men and the king were not revealed earlier. In the beginning of the book, I didn’t understand why Lady Josephine focused on the Grey Men instead of the Kai Ree, who murdered Xina’s family.
Speaking of the Grey Men, they are very much the personification of the other. They are the faceless evil against which the Iron Gift fights. But I find the descriptions of them extremely uncomfortable. They are described as barbaric, filthy savages, wearing loincloths and facepaint, carrying cudgels or spears, with skin the color of ash. The descriptions are remarkably close to the racist depictions of Native Americans, with gray skin substituted for red. Perhaps on purpose, these descriptions undermine the the facelessness of the enemy to my modern eyes.
Unfortunately, the large cast of characters surrounding Xina are more difficult to follow. Most of the members of the Iron Gift are introduced in a single chapter early in the story, and the number of them, many if whom are vague personalities that don’t often directly interact with Xina, makes it difficult to know who is important. Turns out they all are to some extent, but because I didn’t commit them all to memory in the beginning, I lost details that were important later.
Recommended for fantasy fans ready for a story that depicts a more honest view of the war and political game from a ground-level view!