I’ll admit I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up my digital copy of As Fierce as Steel by first-time author Christopher P. Walsh. I knew it was a fantasy genre from Walsh’s stellar campaigning over the last year, and I saw with a quick flip through the pages that the chapter breaks were similar in style to RR Martin (in that, each chapter switches the point-of-view and the character-in-questions name is the default ‘chapter title’). I read all five of the A Song of Ice and Fire books this past year so that slight visual cue alone gave me what I thought was a reasonable expectation of what lay within.
But to say that Walsh was influenced solely by RR Martin weakens both. As Fierce as Steel is actually much more than that. It has the tone of George RR Martin (that epic feeling that sends chills whenever the characters enter a battle) along with the imagination of JRR Tolkien (taking disparate aspects from the world around them and melding them into a coherent fantasy universe capable of suspending the reader’s disbelief for 700+ pages) and the aesthetics of Baz Luhrmann… yes, Baz Luhrmann. In that he has the ability to mix modern (ish) weaponry like rifles and modern idioms of speech into a fantastical, medieval setting in such a way that feels neither forced nor contrived, much in the way Luhrmann shifted the weapons in Romeo+Juliet.
Speaking of the dialog: Walsh has quite an ear for it. Anyone who has attended a writing panel with me will know that tinny dialog is one of my pet peeves, but Walsh does a great job. He understands the idioms of speech he’s using. He knows what goes where and how much. He knows each character’s voice and mannerisms and the motivations behind what they say in a way that even some of the more practiced artists writing novels do not.
As Fierce as Steel tells the story of Orangecloak (along with several others, too many to name in fact. There are four point-of-view characters but so many characters its beyond mention in the work as a whole) and her band of thieves as they work to carve out a place for themselves in the land of Illiastra. The book has a sharp feminist edge to it that’s hard to ignore (not should you). You’ll know the bad guys immediately for their use of sexist slurs. It is a book that has a point, and if you take the Freudian response to the slurs like I did and realize that these words that are you come to define that the book is about feminist ideals (in my mind at least) then you’re already half way there.
The book loses me in two respects. The first is the sheer amount of characters. As I mentioned above, while the Point-of-View characters are kept to a respectable amount compared to George RR Martin, the number of characters with interesting and hard-to-pronounce-in-your-head names on every other page does make it hard to keep track of what’s going on and what’s important. However that’s the same thing that irks me about George RR Martin, so fans of his who don’t mind that should feel right at home here. The second is that the book does get a little wordy at times, especially in the opening ten chapters. A certain level of world building is expected of any fantasy series, but I prefer it a little more organic. I’m okay not knowing exactly how the world we’re in work until it becomes relevant, even if that’s several books down the line.
The good news is: there will be more books. Walsh is already hard at work on The Worth of Gold, the next book in the series. In the meantime, anyone who can’t wait to get their Gold and Steel fix can check out the prequel short story in Sci-Fi from the Rock. Walsh isn’t going anywhere, and despite those few small nit-picks: this is one of the best novels by a new author you’re going to see in 2016. Easily the best fantasy novel to be released this year, looking at what’s coming up.
Walsh is a part of a new breed: he grew up on the fantasy of his generation and has decided what of it works and what of it doesn’t, and has produced his own spin on things. This is a unique novel in the fantasy genre, a genre which has not seen innovation since the last crop of visionaries came through the pipeline in the late 80s. Will Walsh be counted among those greats? We’ll need a few more books to tell for sure, but this book certainly has him off to a good start.
‘Other Indie’ is a recurring series of articles on Engen Books in which authors highlight the best in independent publishing, in the hopes of helping readers break through the cluster of books they may not be sure about in an age when anyone can publish via digital formats. Engen Books is an independent small-press publishing company based in St. John’s Newfoundland and is proud to highlight the talent of independent authors not our own. As Fierce as Steel is © 2016 Christopher Walsh. This review is © 2017 Matthew LeDrew. ‘Other Indie’ banner photo credit: Steve Lake.