Talis is one hell of a city. It is both a bustling metropolis and the edge of the civilisation, home to millions of humans and faerie, and the centre of trade and magic. Ruled by a benevolent, but firmly entrenched, duke, Talis has a history dating back thousands of years, including centuries under the oppression of Witches.
Talis is also packed with stories. The Witches were overthrown by a human/faerie alliance - an alliance that has since dissolved. The faeries are second-class citizens in the city. They live packed into a ghetto, the population of which increases daily with refugees from the surrounding wilderness. Others have assimilated into human society, trying to fit in as merchants, artists or political power-brokers. On the human 'side', the Duke has no heir, and the city's many aristocrats and nouveau riche jockey for position - while the Emperor looks on, impassively, from afar. The city guard is rife with corruption and intrigue, but still stands as the last line between the city and total anarchy. Talis is the proverbial powder keg, with strangers, politicians, rebels, wizards, and detectives all running around with matches.
Appropriately enough, Irons in the Fire begins with an explosion.
A hobgoblin terrorist detonates a bomb outside one of the gates, killing human and faerie alike. With a major celebration on the horizon - and a debate around faeries' right to vote - the Duke needs this solved, quickly. The head of the Guard is one of his oldest, most trusted friends, but he's wrestling with his own, personal concerns. The inspectors beneath him compete to solve the case, but prefer competition to cooperation, knowing that heads will roll. Meanwhile, factions in the faerie underground argue over the bombing. Was it too aggressive? Was it aggressive enough? While some argue for a political solution, others scheme and sharpen their swords. And, of course, there are outside players as well - an Imperial envoy has arrived, as well as a mysterious visitor from distant lands...
So who is this for? I break this down below, but Irons in the Fire is a bit of an oddity. It is not a conventional hero-and-quest structure; instead it is an oral history of a tumultuous time in a fantasy city. And, as far as tumult goes, it isn't particularly 'epic' in scale. We see how the events of Irons touch on lives, and how they'll clearly have repercussions down the line - but, as far as 'size' goes, you never get the impression that the fate of world(s) is at stake.
Possibly for readers of M.A.R. Barker's The Man of Gold, Robert Asprin and Lynn Abbey's Thieves World series, and Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar. It also reminds me a bit of Perdido Street Station and Iron Council, and World War Z (all explained below).
Enough of that. Let's gear up, grab some iron rations, and get to crawling.
Fighter (Entertainment!): Irons isn't the fastest-moving book, by any means. It starts with a (literal) bang, but then sprawls into a handful of storylines. These are, initially, seemingly only connected through geography, and until things start coming together, it can be a bit of a slog. But when things do get moving, they move quickly. What begins as a slightly fragmented series of inconsequential events turns into chaos, monsters and all-out magical brawling. Stick with it. Level 8.
Magic-User (World-Building!): Talis is a cracking city. It is the center of a powerful duchy, but also under the thumb of a not-quite-distant enough Emperor. It has a long history of war and revolution and secrets. And, of course, it has a tense, mixed population of humans and Faerie - due to its location on the furthest edge of the empire. It has wizards and guards and a Mephistophelian kingpin of crime and a seedy nightclub and and and and... Well, everything you might need for an adventure. Irons in the Fire also introduces all of this with a minimum of fuss. Given the sheer volume of weirdness going on, it is a pleasure to have the setting unfold naturally We learn about the city, its history and its denizens through the perspective of a dozen different characters. Some of these views might be a bit dry, but the exposition is never heavy-handed. Talis isn't Bas-Lag, but... the fusion of fantasy cultures, and the ambitious intermixing of genres and aesthetics, reminds me of Perdido Street Station. Which, 'round these parts, is high praise. Level 18.
Cleric (Characters!): One of Irons' clear strengths is the way that the characters all have their own individual motivations, quests and sneaky little side-schemes. These are 'scaled' appropriately: from the guardsman that wants to woo a lonely widow to the Countess and her mission of apocalyptic revenge. These individual plots all mesh together well. Thematically, everyone is significant. The big Epic Questiness is, of course, there, looming - but what makes the story tick over are all these tiny, almost everyday, choices and personal decisions. Free Will is another important element in Irons in the Fire. The characters - even those trapped by their hereditary 'destiny' - all have the power to make choices: but every choice has its repercussions.
As a result, I really admire what Irons does with its collective cast. I'm not wild about any one character, but this isn't a book about any individual. Irons is a post-Wire fantasy: there's no clear protagonist. This is interesting, but it also has its challenges. ASOIAF, for example, is notable for popularising [not inventing!] multiple points of view in epic fantasy. Martin's series has many protagonists, from the traditional high fantasy heroes (Jon Snoooooow, Sam, Daenerys) to revisionist heroes (Tyrion, Sansa) to anti-heroes (Jamie, Arya). But they're all protagonists, firmly at the centre of their stories, convinced fo their own importance, and busily changing the world. Irons follows a series of events, examined from multiple perspectives. But there's never a central focus. This has more in common with, say, an oral history like World War Z than an epic like Game of Thrones. It is ambitious, but, as you might expect with this approach, no individual really shines. Level 6.
Thief (Surprises!): Yessssssish. As noted above, and above that too, Irons is about the sum of its parts. No particular storyline is particularly unusual or surprising - no points for predicting who/what the Countess is, for example. But the way they all weave together is appealing: I like the concept of a book without heroes - a book that examines (imaginary) historical events in this way. Level 10.
Something else (Whatever!): I'm giving Irons in the Fire some levels in Sorcerer. As every good 3e D&D player knows, Sorcerers are like naturally intuitive Wizards, who get their power not from study, but from raw talent. Irons is, of my four 'finalists', the most raw. I hasten to add that there aren't glaring formatting or spelling errors or anything like that. It is about copy editing, not proofreading. There's a lot of repetition, for example, which slows it down, as the same facts are sometimes delivered repeatedly. I think Irons is a good book, and, with a bit of polish, it has the potential to be even more. Level 10.
Total party levels: 52