“Mountains shouldn’t scream, but this one did.” Those words start the first volume in The Iron Elves series by Chris Evans, a first time author. A Darkness Forged in Fire is one of the best new fantasies that I’ve read in a long time. Evans has a visceral writing style that makes the world come alive, interesting takes on standard fantasy races such as elves and dwarves, and one of the most terrifying landscapes I can remember.
A Darkness Forged in Fire tells the story of Konowa Swift Dragon and his quest to find redemption from being born marked by the Shadow Monarch, an evil elf-witch who is determined to take over the world with her forests of black trees and frozen ground. The Shadow Monarch is searching for the Eastern Star, a relic of unimaginable power, to aid her in her quest to subjugate the entire world to her whim. The empire also wants the Star for its own purposes, as do the elfkyna, the conquered native people who believe the Star will enable them to eject the empire from their lands and reclaim their freedom. Caught between all these competing agendas is Konowa, the commander of the Iron Elves, who killed the former Viceroy when he discovered that the Viceroy was a puppet of the Shadow Monarch, for which he was exiled and his unit shipped to a foreign country. Called back into service to lead the Prince’s quest for the Star, he must reform the Iron Elves from the dregs of the Empire’s army and lead them against the Shadow Monarch.
This plot could be described as what might happen if the British Empire decided to colonize Middle Earth. A mix of politics, military tactics, and fantasy, Evans balances all three types of storytelling to create a captivating story. He manages to create a whole cast of memorable, finely-drawn characters, and balances gripping action, terrifying encounters with evil, and moments of humor and beauty into a well-rounded story. A Darkness Forged in Fire is a tightly plotted novel full of twists, turns, betrayals, and other unexpected events. In particular, the ending was not what I was anticipating, but seems a perfect conclusion to the plot lines that led up to it.
The relationship between Konowa and Visyna, an elfkyna witch, is especially well done. Visyna regards Konowa as a tool of the Empire that is crushing her people and bringing evil to her land. She can sense the danger that Konowa represents, and that tempers their relationship. Though they are obviously attracted to each other, that doesn’t cause them to cast all their other responsibilities to the wind and fall head over heels in love with each other, but instead they have to fumble their way forward with competing and conflicting agendas. It is a much more realistic depiction of emerging love than is frequently found in fantasy novels.
I had just one quibble with the story, and that is the inclusion of the storyline detailing the activities of the current Viceroy. Though as well written as the rest of the story, it didn’t advance the main plot in any significant fashion. I’m assuming that this subplot was necessary for setting up the action for the next book in the series, but it slowed down the otherwise gripping pace of this volume.
Chris Evans’ world lives and breathes, making it difficult to put down the book. I stayed up late and got up early to find time to read it — something I haven’t done in quite a while. A Darkness Forged in Fire is a great book, and a particularly impressive feat for a debut novel. I highly recommend A Darkness Forged in Fire to any reader, and am eagerly looking forward to the next book in this series.
A Darkness Forged in Fire has an interesting mix of traditional fantasy elements: tree-connected elves, gruff dwarves, a shadowy villain arisen from the past, a quest combined with an Imperial Army with musket brigades, an “Iron” elf who isn’t quite so into nature, even a drunk pelican. Unfortunately, the mix of elements was the most original aspect of the novel, with its other basic elements such as plot and character too pedestrian to be all that compelling.
The Iron Elves were a regiment of a group of elves “touched by” the Shadow Monarch elf-witch (as marked by being born with black-tipped ears) and thus mistrusted. By forming their own regiment in the Imperial Army, they tried to show they were deserving of trust. But a few years back their leader, Konawa, discovered that the elvish imperial Vice-Roy was a minion of the Shadow Monarch and killed him. The Iron Regiment was disbanded and sent to a far-flung hole of the empire while Konawa was court-martialed and exiled. As is often the case with dark lords, though, the Shadow Monarch once more threatens and so Konawa is called back and the Iron Elves regiment reformed, though this time with humans (and one dwarf).
The strengths of A Darkness Forged in Fire are its humor, which is often quite, quite funny; its fast pace (though it slows in places), and one or two strongly constructed characters (particularly the dwarf Yimt and his friend Alwyn).
Unfortunately, I found its weaknesses to outweigh its strengths. The worldbuilding is relatively thin, with some potential richness (especially in the political nature of the setting — an empire, an oppressed land of elfkynan (cousins to true elves), true elves, a rebellion, etc) but it’s never really fleshed out. The characters are also thin save for the exceptions I mentioned. The book drops down in intensity anytime we leave the grunts of the regiment for the other characters, including the main character Konawa (who just isn’t all that compelling), his romantic interest Alwyn (and the romance is too predictable and perfunctory), the meant-to-be-scary new Viceroy, and the feckless prince.
And the plot is pretty simplistic and straightforward, as is the book’s movement through the plot — the army marches, fights some skirmishes against odd creatures, marches some more, fights some more odd creatures. That’s an oversimplification, but not by much. The plot lines that do interrupt the straightforward movement — mostly dealing with the new viceroy, feel mostly unnecessary.
In the end, while I really enjoyed the moments when Yimt was on-stage, those moments didn’t happen enough to carry the book. A Darkness Forged in Fire isn’t all that bad; it’s just sort of there, which isn’t enough to carry me into book two.
Iron Elves — (2008-2011) Publisher: We do not fear the flame, though it burns us, We do not fear the fire, though it consumes us, And we do not fear its light, Though it reveals the darkness of our souls, For therein lies our power. — Blood Oath of the Iron Elves. First in a stunning debut series, A Darkness Forged in Fire introduces an unforgiving world of musket and cannon… bow and arrow… magic, diplomacy, and oaths — each wielding terrible power in an Empire teetering on the brink of war. In this world, Konowa Swift Dragon, former commander of the Empire’s elite Iron Elves, is looked upon as anything but ordinary. He’s murdered a Viceroy, been court-martialed, seen his beloved regiment disbanded, and finally been banished in disgrace to the one place he despises the most — the forest. Now, all he wants is to be left alone with his misery… but for Konowa, nothing is ever that simple. The mysterious and alluring Visyna Tekoy, the highborn daughter of an elfkynan governor, seeks him out in the dangerous wild with a royal decree that he resume his commission as an officer in Her Majesty’s Imperial Army, effective immediately. For in the east, a falling Red Star heralds the return of a magic long vanished from the earth. Rebellion grows within the Empire as a frantic race to reach the Star unfolds. It is a chance for Konowa to redeem himself — even if the entire affair appears doomed to be a suicide mission… and that the soldiers recruited for the task are not at all what he expects. And worse, his key adversary in the perilous race for the Star is the dreaded Shadow Monarch — a legendary elf-witch whose machinations for absolute domination spread deeper than Konowa could ever imagine…