The Iron Crown by LL MacRae was released in 2021 and was a finalist in the seventh annual Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off. The first book in MacRae’s Dragon Spirits series, the sequel, The Shadow Gate, came out earlier this year to rave reviews, so I decided it was long past time for me to pick up The Iron Crown and give it a try.
The story begins with the character of Fenn, who awakens in a swamp and finds he is suffering from complete memory loss. His amnesia is a useful plot device, informing the reader about the world of Tassar as Fenn asks various questions to try and fill the gaps in his knowledge. We soon discover there’s a sinister cause to Fenn’s condition, and much of the plot revolves around Fenn trying to rediscover who he really is. Whether he will be happy learning the truth is an interesting question. A number of characters gather around Fenn during the course of the story, aiding him in various ways, the main ones being Calidra and Jisyel.
When we first encounter Calidra, she is dealing with the death of her noble father, which stirs up complex memories and feelings. Calidra’s difficult childhood may be a fantasy staple, but her reactions to that family dynamic and the painful interactions between her and her mother, Furyn, felt very real. Calidra’s partner, Jisyel, is far more trusting and rather heedless, and she often acts before thinking. Their relationship is well written. We learn Jisyel is cursed and Calidra’s outward demeanour hides frailties of her own, which means both must depend on each other, making their relationship a balanced one.
We also meet Selys, a priestess of the dragon spirit Neros, who seems to have her own agenda, and the retired general Varlot, who has a murky past. Ranged against them is Torsten, Queen Surayo’s Master Inquisitor. Although Torsten is the antagonist in the tale, I liked his scenes and at one third of the way through the novel I was debating whether he was actually my favourite character. In many ways, he’s the most interesting. Fenn’s amnesia draws the unwelcome interest of the Inquisitors, who think this may be a sign he has been cursed by their mortal enemies, the Myr, forcing him to try and stay one step ahead of Torsten.
The magic of Tassar is based on a really interesting concept. In this world, dragon spirits are connected to the land, forests, lakes and seas. They draw their power from the energy of life itself, granting their followers special powers if they decide to bless them. Torsten has been blessed by the dying lake spirit of Miroth, which makes him a priest as well as an Inquisitor.
Torsten serves Queen Surayo, ruler of the Porsenthian Empire, who is bound to Toriaken, the dragon spirit of iron. The Iron Guard and Toriaken are memorable symbols of the queen’s power, but she rules with the dragon. Blessed by him, the pair are one with each other. I think the fact that Torsten is blessed by Miroth but serves Toriaken creates an interesting potential for future conflict.
There were a couple of areas which didn’t work quite so well for me in this novel. The main one is this book feels very much like the set up for the main series. The plot is simple, with a disparate and changing group of travellers heading in roughly the same direction for various reasons, helping each other out along the way. In that respect, this book differs from classics like The Lord of the Rings. For most of the novel there’s no obvious main quest or common purpose in The Iron Crown, with each character pursuing their own agenda. In some ways, this is realistic, with this mostly being a tale about common folk trying to deal with the situations life throws at them. This meant that at times it was difficult for me to really root for some of these characters as a reader, because they lacked that common cause.
It’s at the halfway point when things begin to come together, as it becomes clear that Tassar is under threat and an ancient enemy, the Myr, have returned. After some very clever plotting by MacRae, her introduction of Apollo’s character resolves some loose ends from the first part of the novel and also starts to reveal what the series is really about. I loved this aspect of the story and how it unfolded. If Torsten was the star of the show in the first part, he’s completely upstaged by Apollo in the second half. Apollo was easily my favourite character, desperately trying to protect those he loves as the bad decisions (honestly, those were some really bad calls, Apollo!) of his past catch up with him.
No review would be complete without acknowledging that the amazing world building in The Iron Crown really is the star of the show, where MacRae demonstrates a talent that rivals the fantasy greats. I loved the refreshingly different take on dragons in this story, with their power making the humans of Tassar seem so small and insignificant. The mystery of the dragons’ enemies, the Myr, and what they want is built up nicely, to the extent that Jisyel’s terror of them almost becomes infectious. MacRae’s description of the Myr is so vivid, and I think this is my favourite passage from the book:
‘Fenn shivered, watching, waiting. The Myr – for they could be nothing else – appeared on the edges of the deadlands, the first of their number falling to the arrows. They were a solid wave of cold shadow on the horizon. Grass wilted at their every step, lightning crackled, announcing their advance with flashes of blue and white.
Fenn’s finger’s twitched with the remembered touch of ice.
They bore no weapons, wore no armour, no clothes, no boots. They had no flags, no horns announcing their arrival. They moved as one – a single, black entity made up of a thousand, thousand parts. Every golden eye was fixed upon the waves of Porsenthian and Bragalian soldiers.’
As the threat of the Myr grows, it seems inevitable that the various characters will be drawn together once more as the series progresses.
In summary, The Iron Crown is an excellent novel with a classic fantasy feel, full of confident world building, interesting magic and rich description and prose. At the same time, the novel’s darker themes and understated but positive LGBTQ+ and gender roles representation gives the whole tale an up-to-date feel. I found myself speculating about the characters and thinking about the book a lot when I wasn’t reading it, and I always looked forward to diving into another chapter each night. Overall, it was a very relaxing, enjoyable read, tinged with a hint of nostalgia but still giving epic fantasy a welcome and refreshing modern twist.
As a result, the sequel, The Shadow Gate, and the related novella, The Citrine Key, have both raced up my ‘to be read’ list. I’m eagerly looking forward to returning to the world of Tassar and finding out if all my speculation about the motives of these characters, their dragons and the mysterious Myr proves to be correct.