Last week Stina Leicht dropped by to talk to us about her new book, Cold Iron, which is out now! This was a really fun conversation because in Stina's last visit to Dive into Worldbuilding, we got a few hints about her work on this project, and this time we were able to talk about how the novel had come together.
Stina says it's hard to do elevator pitches for epic fantasy, but that she began it with a starter question: What if Tolkien were American? She got the inspiration in part from an essay about how epic fantasy glorified feudalism. So her idea was to take the tropes of Tolkien, and change them. She set the book in a world resembling the late 1700's (technologically and culturally). She did some research on the time period to get inspirations from the history. One thing she picked up was the smallpox epidemic.
In this world, there are humans, and kaenin. Kaenin have magic and pointy ears, and humans don't (Stina finds a lovely backwards way of showing this in the book, too). Kaenin are diverse. People came to their nation, Eledor, from all over the world. Skin tones vary among the Kaenin but they are not the thing that identifies them as Kaenin; possession of magic is. People without power are not considered worthy by them, and thus humans are looked down on. So are Kaenin born without power.
The magic of the Kaenin is "command magic." They can tell you you are seeing things that you are not, as when, for example, they hand you dead leaves and you accept them as money. Different families among the Kaenin have different powers that are handed down. Stina described an inspiration she got at a retreat with her agent, Barry Goldblatt. Magical power is a "footprint in the world" like money. She asked, "How can you treat magic like money?" It doesn't work in every situation, but it leads to some interesting opportunities.
In Cold Iron, the Acrasians are the enemies, the Big Bad. Book 2 starts in Acrasia. The Acrasians come through Rifts; the first Rift occurred in Eledor.
The book notably includes a map. She said that she hadn't wanted to draw a map, because Tolkien did it so well. I noted that the map she included looks a bit like America. She told us she'd agonized over details like "Is this accurate?" "Would mountains really form here?" "How long would it really take to travel from here to here?"
She said she got inspired by an image from Jeff Vandermeer's Wonderbook, which shows a dragon outline made out of layered cloud shapes. She decided to take ghosts and demons and layer them over each other to create her map. The native peoples of the region are Kaenin, while the immigrants are the Acrasians, coming from a culture like ancient Rome.
Despite her protestations that she did a minimum of research, so she could "have fun," I suspect this was simply in contrast with the years of incredible, politically exacting research she did for her novels set in Northern Ireland. Stina says she did quite a bit of reading about the Georgian era in America, and particularly recommends the book Pox Americana.
In her world, the Acrasians have developed the musket. It has been around in their culture for a while, but has not been in Eledor for very long. Rifling is very new to both cultures.
The book is the first of a planned series. Each book will stand alone, but all will be connected. Stina is enjoying playing with the characters, and letting the world breathe and grow. She wants people to be able to pick up Book 3 and not suffer from the lack of knowledge from books 1 and 2.
Che asked whether we will be going to places other than Eledor. Stina said, "Eventually." She told us about the water-born nations, which are clans who live on ships at sea and believe in the Sea Mother. She says she took inspiration here from the East India company. No one outside a clan gets to learn where their home island is. They have magic that works on the water. She loves this group because she has always loved pirate stories like Kidnapped and Treasure Island.
The first book uses three points of view and a mosaic plot structure. The three are Nels, Suvi his twin sister, and Ilta, a powerful seer and healer whose power nearly drives her crazy.
I asked her about the significance of the color black in Eledor. It is used to separate the soldier class from the rest of society because they deal in death. They are therefore considered unclean, and have cleansing rituals they must complete; they must also be careful whom they associate with, or touch. The black means they are marked by death. People in the Kaenin culture are frightened of death and blood. She took inspiration for this from the 1970's and the way soldiers were ostracized when they came back from Vietnam. Deaths in the normal population are ignored, and the word "death" is similarly ignored, always turned into euphemisms.
Stina also remarked that royalty exists in Eledor - that Nels and Suvi's mother wanted a more democratic government but she dies.
Korvas are scouts, thieves, and assassins. They look normal but they have keen hearing and the ability to hide very well. They are employed by nobles and the army. The army, interestingly, is considered a punishment for Eledorians. They choose to go into it to avoid jail, and the family grieves for them. Korva actions are illegal but used anyway; bad korvas are executed, while those who get caught get scarred distinctively.
For language, Stina told us she used a lot of Swedish, Norwegian, and Finnish to inspire Eledor. The word korva, for example, means "ear." The title of a seer means "eye of the people," while the names of the months are Finnish. She wanted to emulate the way that the United States has varied place names from different languages.
"Cold Iron" refers to a sward. Water steel is a specialty of the Eledorians, and effective against the Acrasians. There is also a method used against Eledorians that is particularly destructive, and that is also referred to as Cold Iron.
Che asked whether Stina had done research on gunsmithing, to which Stina replied, "Lots." She feels that as an author, you have to know how things work. Gun hobbyists would likely call you out for errors. Some things in a fantasy book can be made up, but others you ahve to do research on. She promises that there will be magical rifles, and a character who is a gunsmith who leaves Acrasia with stolen knowledge. Something to look forward to in Book 2!
Stina says she enjoys character-driven fiction and tries to make her own work character-driven as well. She says she felt her books set in Northern Ireland were very stressful because of the pressure to get every last detail exactly right. This series allows her to play with ideas and what-ifs.
Thank you for joining us for this great conversation, Stina! Everyone keep an eye out for Cold Iron.