Christian Cameron has written some of the finest historical fiction on the market today. Under the pseudonym Miles Cameron, he's also produced some of the very best fantasy I've had the privilege of reading. I have all his books, and re-read them regularly, which is the highest recommendation I can give them.
His Masters and Mages fantasy trilogy is captivating. I find myself re-reading it at least once every year, and sometimes more often. It's a thrilling blend of historically recognizable threads, woven by a master storyteller into something greater than the sum of their parts. This morning I'd like to bring you an early chapter from the first volume of the trilogy, "Cold Iron".
We talk about "world-building": how a writer builds the world in which he's writing, and introduces it to his readers, so that they feel drawn into it and become a part of it, following his vision with their own imagination. Please read this excerpt from that perspective, looking at how Mr. Cameron draws us into his fictional world and makes us feel at home there. It's a masterful display of the craft.
(One caution: I normally keep this blog family-friendly, but there are a couple of F-bombs in this excerpt. If that bothers you, you might want to skip it.)
It was almost dark when he prepared to make his way down to the docks which all but surrounded the City. He had a simple leather shoulder sack, a heavy cloak rolled and tied to it, and the sword—his most expensive possession and one that he wasn’t sure he should even carry—on his waist belt with his purse.
He liked the sword, even though he wasn’t very good with it. He wasn’t sure it was completely legal for him to carry it outside the City, but it had, in just a few weeks, become a part of him. A symbol of the changes. An identity. Students were allowed swords by ancient privilege. Also, it wasn’t an Arnaut sword, curved and razor sharp. It was a Byzas sword, an old one, with a complex hilt that seemed at odds with the simple, heavy blade.
If the sword was one outward sign, then so were his clothes—City clothes, nothing like what Arnauts wore: tight knit stockings and boots and a doublet with buttons to the throat. Arnauts, like Attians, wore baggy trousers and voluminous shirts and turbans or skullcaps or both. It occurred to Aranthur how much he would stick out at home, in his City clothes, with his City sword.
He grinned at his reflection in his room-mate’s expensive mirror. With brown skin and green eyes, no one would ever mistake him for an aristocrat, but he was satisfied with what he saw, and he was tall and powerfully built, and size had advantages.
He settled the sword on his hip and imagined arriving home with it—imagined his father’s annoyance, his mother’s worry, his sister’s admiration. He nodded, put the cover on his brazier to seal the fire, said a prayer to the Eagle, and walked down the steep steps of the ancient building in which he lived: six flights, and his sword tapping on every step.
He’d forgotten to return Kati’s penknife. He paused on the stairs and swallowed a curse. But he was honest enough to admit that if he went back to return the knife to her room, he might just stay.
He went out into the afternoon air of the City instead.
The City was vast, a long peninsula riddled with alleys and criss-crossed with canals. Every street led to the sea in at least one direction, and some in both, and wharves full of ships bound to the whole of the known world waited at every pier. It was an aspect of the City that he loved above all others. But the Academy dominated the highest hill, and its precincts included not just the ancient, magnificent buildings of its founder, but the rows and rows of taverns, inns, and tall houses with crazy chimneys that had been built over a thousand years for the students and the masters, their fronts decorated with crazy patterns or magnificent frescoes, fresh or ancient. Most of those houses had glass windows, because students required light to read and write, and the winter sun reflected on glass and sparkled like ice; away to the north, at the top of the City, the Emperor’s palace positively glittered with mosaics and the crystal dome of ten thousand panes that rose over his reception hall into a high point like a spire. And to the east, the Temple of Light dominated the waterfront like a mountain made by men. To the west, the rose marble “Palace of the City” where the Great Assembly met and sat.
The sight never failed to make him breathe deeply and contemplate his own insignificance. Born a farm child in the distant Arnaut hills, the largest building he had known was the village’s stone barn, and later the local lord’s manor house where he had learned his letters and his first cantrips.
Even the deep woods he loved could not really rival the City.
At the base of his street, lined with tall houses and overshadowed by wooden galleries, balconies, and even bridges at the upper levels, he turned left, descending the hill towards the canals. There, on the first terrace, was the statue of the Founder: Tirase. He faced the statue, a little self-consciously, and made a reverence on one knee, the point of his scabbard catching on the cobblestones. Tirase gazed out over his Academy—a long, ascetic face, relieved by the obvious humour of his mouth and the ever so slightly raised eyebrow. He wore a simple long gown and he was pointing east. Theories abounded as to why.
Aranthur straightened. He revered Tirase; he was always aware that without the man’s reforms, he would be tending milk cows in Soulis. He made a face and went down the marble steps. He’d never known the Academy to be so empty. He’d never been alone on the terrace before, and he had the odd feeling that his hero was watching him.
At the base of the steps he passed over the line of gold set in the ground that marked the Precinct. He paused at the shrine of the goddess Sophia and said a brief prayer, a simple invocation and request for blessing on his travel, and then he crossed the line.
As soon as he was out of the Academy he thought in terms of his own people, the People of the Eagle, the Arnauts. They were not against the one great Goddess of Wisdom that the educated preferred, but at home they tended to worship the Twelve, and especially the Eagle, the great god of the sky and of lightning, and his pantheon of brothers and sisters and lovers and enemies, and the Lady, who might or might not be Sophia. He wasn’t sure he believed in the Eagle any more, but the Eagle was pinned to his thoughts in ways that gentle Sophia was not. His first weeks at the Academy had taught him to reflect on such things. He had a Magos who said the gods were nonsense invented for weak minds, and he had another who claimed that all power came from the goddess, and that only the most rigid adherence to her tenets would allow a student to master power. But here, walking along a canal no wider than the alleys above him, smelling the sea, he was a different young man.
Although he was turned away roughly by the first ship he tried, the second ship was different. She was a small lugger whose owner was the captain, and Aranthur felt that the Eagle was with him; indeed, there was a carved eagle on the bow.
The ship was bound for the Gulf of Lonika, had need of a strong back, and when the captain heard he was a student at the Academy, the older man took him immediately.
“Can you master a wind?” he asked with a raised eyebrow.
“No, Master,” he said.
He wanted to add that he understood the principle—that in an emergency … Instead he touched his kuria and shook his head.
Farming taught you to keep your silence. So did the Academy. Farming also taught you to work hard.
The ship’s master nodded.
“Good, a straight answer. What’s your name, boy?” he asked, kindly enough.
“Aranthur,” said the young man. “Aranthur Timos.”
“Arnaut?” the man asked.
The man tugged at his own beard and nodded.
“My wife’s an Arnaut. Five days, and if you help us unload, five silver chalkes.”
The student bowed. “At your service,” he said, and both men spat on their hands and shook.
Aranthur was no sailor, but he had grown up within two days’ walk of the ocean and he’d been on a few ships. He didn’t get sick, but he didn’t really know how anything worked, either. He simply stood amidships all day waiting to be tasked, and the work wasn’t too bad. They didn’t overwork him, and he loved to stand on the deck just at the edge of darkness and watch the stars come up in the firmament, to say the prayers he’d learned at school and watch the sky as he had been taught for signs and portents. There was plenty to see: a meteor storm; a confusing flash in the heavens; the Eagle constellation, more gloriously laid out than he’d ever seen the nightly manifestation of his people’s god.
The breeze was steady despite the onrush of winter, and even when snow fell on the ship, the wind didn’t rise. They sighted land early in the morning of the fifth day. Before noon they were alongside a pier, and Aranthur was stripped to the waist despite the weather, throwing bags of grain grown in Atti from the hold up onto the deck. It was, at first, an excellent piece of exercise, and then it became dull. He turned his mind elsewhere, heaving sack after sack to the men above him, covered in sweat, and he did it until his arm muscles trembled with fatigue, but five silver crosses would transform his holidays and he was used to hard work. He lifted and threw, lifted and threw until his arms would barely function.
And then, suddenly, they were done. The sailors were as eager to go to their homes as Aranthur was to go to his, and after a couple of warm embraces, Aranthur was virtually alone. He was alone long enough to fear that the ship’s master had forgotten to pay him, and then the older man came up the gangplank from the pier.
“You’re a good worker,” he said. He handed over a small leather bag. “Count it, lad. There are more thieves than honest men in this world, by Draxos.”
Aranthur opened the little purse. There were six silver chalkes and a tiny gold sequin.
“For my sins,” the ship’s master said with a smile. “Pray for me, will you, Student?”
Aranthur bowed. “It is too much.”
The older man smiled bitterly. “Bah. Perhaps. I got a fine price for the grain. Darknight is coming, eh? Best do a good deed. Take it, and eat well, and think of me.”
He nodded and stomped off to his cabin.
Aranthur went down the plank, shrugging into his wool cote and getting tangled in the knife he wore around his neck. He was cooling off rapidly, and he pulled on a hood, paused, and realised he had left his sword. Almost as if it had called out to him.
He stopped at a dockside tavern that looked faintly reputable and ate a good cuttlefish stew, black with squid’s ink. Eating fish didn’t trouble him, although he made the invocation to the spirit of the fish. It was a matter of debate among the learned as to whether fish had the spark or not. Aranthur grinned, thinking of how hot such debates could be, and how different theory was from a bowl of fish stew on a cold morning.
But the day was still young and even with a sequin in his purse, he didn’t have the time or money to linger in Lonika.
Still, the men in the tavern—and they were all men—were talkative, and he listened. And then, in turn, the barkeep asked him where he had come from. The barkeep was eyeing his sword.
Aranthur was already wondering if the sword had been a mistake.
“Academy.” He was really quite proud of his status as a Student. In the City it didn’t mean that much, but here …
One man actually tipped his hat. The others made faces.
“I saw a Lightbringer yesterday,” said the man who’d tipped his hat. “Civil bloke. Very civil.”
“Very few students become Lightbringers,” Aranthur explained. “I myself …”
The barkeep was still looking at his sword.
“Saw a swordsman yesterday,” he said. “He was from the city. A Master.”
Aranthur nodded. “I’m not a master of anything. I’m just a student going home for the Feast.”
“Oh, aye,” said the first man with a smile. “Home?”
“In the hills,” Aranthur said.
“Oh, the hills,” a sailor muttered. He touched his knife and muttered, “Mongrel.”
Coastal people were very fair, like Voltains in the west. Arnauts were a race of mongrels, all the shades of the earth. Aranthur himself was betwixt and between, like most of his people; he was green-eyed, but coloured like old wood.
But despite the hostility of the one sailor, the others wished him well. The idea that he was going home for the great feast made him more normal to them; a longshoreman patted him on the back. Another asked for a blessing. Aranthur had never given anyone except his sister a blessing before. But he swallowed, made the sign of the Eagle on his chest, and managed to say a prayer without faltering.
The man grinned. “You’ll do,” he said, and went about his business.
Aranthur hoisted his pack and went out into the brisk air. He pointed his nose north and west, and began to walk. In ten minutes he was passing a statue of the Founder, and he paused and made his reverence.
A minute later he was approaching the landward gate. A pair of soldiers watched him and he had the uncomfortable knowledge that he held the focus of their attention because he had a sword.
The shorter one looked dangerous: a heavy mouth set in a frown; short as a Jhugj, the old folk of the hills. The taller one, seen closer, was a woman, wide-shouldered but slim. She had a fine steel breastplate and every inch of her was armoured in plain steel polished like a mirror. Her peaked armet made her appear taller. Her armour had bronze edgework, and she had a fine edge of scalloped red leather on her breastplate—worth a fortune. In the City, Aranthur had learned to notice such things.
The short man’s face told Aranthur he was to be stopped, so he paused.
“Let me see your slicer.”
The man’s voice was deep and rough. His maille was heavy, made up of rings of different sizes, and his leather-work spoke of money and hard use together. Aranthur did leather-work to fund his studies; he knew the good stuff when he saw it.
Aranthur took the sword out carefully and handed it pommel first to the guard.
“Stupid sword for a stripling,” he said. “Too big for you. Steal it?”
“No, sir,” Aranthur said.
“Yes, sir.” Aranthur nodded his head as if he was speaking to a Master at the Academy.
“Thieves and cut-throats,” the guard said. “And you more of the same, I guess.”
“No, sir,” Aranthur said. “I’ll just keep your sword, honey,” the guard said. “Strip that belt and give me the scabbard too.”
The short man was watching him; even in Aranthur’s state of near panic, he noted that the powerful man was intent and careful, as if he, Aranthur, might be dangerous.
“Drek …” The woman’s voice was deep, and had a cool dignity Aranthur wouldn’t have expected in a guard.
“I have a writ,” Aranthur said, his voice rising. He tried to breathe, to practise the control he’d learned at the Academy. That sword represented every penny he’d saved …
“Let me see it.” The woman sounded bored.
Aranthur fumbled in his belt-purse, the feeling of panic rising, clouding his ability to find the thrice-damned fold of vellum.
He drew a breath and touched his kuria. Paused, accepted the calm, even if it was artificial.
The moment he touched the crystal, the woman stepped back and put a hand on her sword hilt.
Of course he’d put it in his coin purse. An inner pocket.
“Sorry,” he mumbled.
She kept her distance.
“You are a Magos?”
“Keep both hands where I can see ’em,” said the short, heavy guard. He drew and put the edge of his sword against Aranthur’s throat all in one motion. “You don’t have a fuckin’ writ.” He was grinning now. “And you’re wasting my time.”
Aranthur’s fingers closed on it. The vellum was smooth and cold, and he extracted it, and held it out, the artificial calm of the talisman helping him.
The woman opened it with practised fingers, left handed, her right still on her sword hilt.
She looked at him with her head tilted slightly, as if he was something foreign to her.
“You are an Imperial Student?” she asked, her intonation putting the capitals on the words.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said.
“Oh, by the Lady, anyone can say …” The guard rolled his eyes, but the woman gave him one look and he was silent.
She nodded, folded Aranthur’s writ and tapped it on the back of her sword hand.
“Give the boy his sword, Drek.”
Drek obeyed. He wasn’t even surly, he just handed it over.
“Can’t let everyone walk about armed,” he said.
Aranthur wanted to sheathe the sword easily, but his hands were shaking, and he fumbled with it for so long that the big guard reached over and slipped it home in the scabbard.
“Too long for you, boy,” he said. “That hilt is old-fashioned …”
Aranthur nodded. The woman scratched under her chin and looked out of the gate.
Aranthur was calming; he had enough control of his fear to note that the woman in the fine helmet was perhaps forty, and had a strong face and even features and looked like …
“That writ is for students learning to fight in the City,” she said. “I’ll pass you—you are a Student, after all. It might as well be tattooed on your head. But …”
She looked at him, and suddenly he saw that she was not a lowly gate-guard. She was someone else—someone reviewing the watch, or commanding the town. And that he was very, very lucky she had been here. She gave him a flick of her eyebrows. A quarter of a smile.
The big guard nodded. “There’s a lot of crap out there, Student,” he said. “Where are you headed?”
“Home,” Aranthur said. “The hills.”
The guard grunted, as if the hills made him uncomfortable.
“We hear there’s fighting out west,” the woman said. “Be careful.” She looked at him intently.
“Get a smaller sword,” the big man called after him.
Aranthur walked away, his cheeks burning, thankful and indignant by turns. As his feet crunched the new snow he heard the man say, “Fluster him and see what he’s made of …” and a moment later, “I was not stealing his fucking sword, ma’am.”
The book - and the trilogy - just gets better from there. Highly recommended, if you enjoy fantasy.