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New Releases: Ice Forged by Gail Z. Martin

Gail Martin Ice ForgedBlaine McFadden (I know, right?) kills his father, a long-overdue and universally appreciated act of retribution. Lord McFadden was a brutish thug that had been tormenting Blaine his entire life. Just to be 100% Evil, his hobbies included a) raping his teenage daughter and b) gloating about it afterwards. Still, the law's the law, and, in the greatest act of legal injustice since the opening minutes of Con Air, Blaine is punished to transportation to Edgeland.1

In Edgeland (cold, mountainy, distinctly unfun), convicts mine rubies whilst being crushed under the heel of a corrupt military governor. By serving three years of back-breaking labour, convicts earn their 'freedom', and, as 'colonists', they allowed to perform the same back-breaking labour but for a tiny wage.

Now, after serving six years in this awful place, Blaine has actually managed to thrive - well, relatively speaking). Not only is he the party leader (his group includes a fighter, a bard, an engineer and an assassin), but Blaine's also a respected member of the colonial community. When the supply ships stop coming and the frosty plains of Edgeland become an even more miserable place, Blaine becomes a pivotal figure in the battle for survival that ensues.

Meanwhile, back on the continent, four kingdoms have all gone to war and things are looking grim. Mad King Edgar has unleashed his war sorcerers and Good King Merrill is reluctantly forced to follow suit. As powerful tides of magic wash over the land, all the kingdoms suffer, and the world is changed forever.2 

Ice Forged is two completely different books, sitting side by side rather uncomfortable in a single volume.

The first is On the Beach in a secondary world. Gail Z. Martin rather blatantly hammers home that magic = technology. Nearly everyone in this world has a wee bit o' magic to them - bards can play music a little better than ordinary folks, healers can heal a little better, captains can navigate a little better, prostitutes are a little prettier (I'm not making this up), etc.3

When the magic starts to go wobbly, the world immediately flips to post-apocalyptic. Fields flood, roads break, lines of communication fall apart and, alas Edgeland, the supply ships stop sailing. Much of Ice Forged is spent with the Edgeland colonists preparing for the coming winter with the knowledge that no further help will be coming. Blaine and his fellow Edgelanders set about building a community out of exiles and criminals. This half of the book, although I'd hesitate to call it fun, is at least fairly intriguing. "Reconstruction fiction" is normally the realm of near-future science fiction. Seeing the genre transposed to a fantasy setting is something new and different.

Sadly, that's the limit of "new and different" in Ice Forged. The other part of the book - largely the second half - is a paint-by-numbers epic fantasy. Stop me if you've heard this one before, but there's a guy who is born special to a magical bloodline, and prophecies say that only he can save the world. There's also a scavenger hunt element with forgotten maps and secret amulets. Ultimately, Blaine and the rest of his party must get Widget A into Slot B before the Evil Whatnots get Screw C tightened into Hole D and the World Will End Forever. This is explained repeatedly - Ms. Martin splits the story into multiple point of view characters, but each one discovers exactly the same information. 

Oh, there are also vampires. Because.

Probably a good time to get back to Blaine's crew, specifically Kestral the assassin. As with everyone else, Kestral's also been unfairly sentenced to life in Edgeland (like Shawshank, there's not a guilty person inside), which brought an end to her career as a courtesan-stroke-assassin.

Ms. Martin takes great pains to point out that Kestral's super-lethal: she kills the first two people that come to bother her in prison. She's also the group cook and bandager-of-wounds, not to mention the designated flirter, screamer and blusher. The reader is told frequently how dangerous she is - why Blaine is invariably admiring how she's got a dozen daggers stashed away in her skimpy outfits - but Kestral is still first and foremost a fantasy damsel.

One example: when they get to a beseiged manor in need of help, Blaine assigns the men as soldiers and volunteers Kestra as a cook.

Another: when an (evil) assassin is hunting the band, Blaine singles out Kestral and insists that she not leave the home alone... despite the fact that she's the only one to have thus far bested the bad guy in combat (and Blaine knows it).

Yet another: she beats to death a vampire in the midst of a violent battle, then shrieks when it turns into a gooey corpse. 

It is a little disappointing, but, like the overall story, the character of Kestral is set up as something interesting, but can't quite manage to break free of her genre-traditional role.

One more pet peeve (sorry). I've mentioned this before, but I (personally) can't stand it when the book attempts an aura of mysterious alienness by renaming common things in patently obvious ways e.g. the 'koffee' from Peter Orullian's The Unremembered. Sadly, that's in Ice Forged as well. This is a world with 'whiskey', 'brandy' and 'tea', but the invigorating morning beverage is called fet. Why draw the line there?


For me, the closest comparison is Brandon Sanderson's The Final Empire - another high fantasy that introduces itself as something unique, but ultimately reverts to the extremely familiar. In Ice Forged, there's a lot of potential that comes with combining a fantasy setting with disaster fiction. Unfortunately, that potential is never fulfilled. Ice Forged melts into a by-the-numbers fantasy, with little to distinguish it - certainly not the fet.


1: This actually downplays Lord McFadden's villainy. In the few short pages of his existance, he does everything but eat a kitten. On top of that, Blaine kills his rapist/incestuous/torturing/bullying/ugly father in self-defense. Still doesn't matter as the 'law' is the 'law'. Nicholas Cage would sympathise.

2: Mad King Edgar is perhaps better known as Edgar the Red Herring. Not only does he never appear in the book, he's also replaced by completely different villains at the halfway point. Closest approximation: if Stephen King had spent the first half of The Stand describing the political ambitions of Leonid Brezhnev.

3: It is actually a really perplexing set-up. Do people discover their talents then gravitate towards the appropriate profession? Or does it happen the other way around? If the captain had never gone to sea, but had sex for money, would he have become better looking? What if you're born with the magical ability to heal wounds, but you really want to be a dancer? Not that I'm ever comfortable defending Piers Anthony in any situation, but Xanth seems rational by comparison.