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In Media Res: Review of Miles Holmes's Cold Steel
War stories have an inherent dramatic and provocative quality. Tales of heroism, valorous deeds and sacrifice proliferate the genre. These stories can be a vehicle for relating the condition of humanity as well as speaking on the growth and development of an individual or of people in general. It can speak deeply of how not only can someone behave and treat others, but also how people can change. Each and every single war story contains a lesson to be learned (whether intended or not); often with the motif of being a hard truth coming with a hard price.
Today, let us take a look at one such tale, crafted as a series of short stories (that as of this writing, are still on-going) by author Miles Holmes. These shorts (published in Privateer Press’s bi-monthly No Quarter magazine) are set within the world of war-torn western Immoren and focus on the rise of Nicolas Verendrye, a man divided between patriotism and profession. Join me as we take a look at, Cold Steel (parts 1 through 4).
A Bit of Background
Immoren, more specifically western Immoren, is the setting in which Privateer Press’s role-playing game Iron Kingdoms (and Iron Kingdoms Unleashed) and miniature games Warmachine and Hordes take place. It is a Victorian-age fantasy world rife with conflict and political regimes bent on conquest. The battlefields are home to living legends, mercenaries for hire, and unfeeling automatons known as steamjacks; steam-powered robots commanded by specialist ‘jack marshals or directly controlled by powerful warcasters.
The politics of the Iron Kingdoms mirrors much of the real-world’s history. Llael, the once proud nation (and stand-in for World War II era France) has been invaded by the Khadoran Empire (the Iron Kingdom equivalent of Soviet-era Russia, albeit with the tsars still in power and in control). The other kingdoms either jump into action to halt the Khadoran march to conquest; or seize the opportunity to launch their own campaigns or crusades and take what they can.
Part One: An Introduction
The story of Cold Steel begins as the main character, Nicolas Verendrye, relates his story of first encountering the Steelhead mercenary company to a fresh and young recruit to the company. Nicolas is initially inspired to share his experiences because the new recruit is Llaelese, just like Nicolas; and just like Nicolas, both men have taken up the mercenary life as a means of escape and revenge against the Khadoran military. Nicolas’s tale starts at the on-set of war from Khador invading Llael; with the focus for Nicolas is escaping Khador-Occupied Llael. Only after being saved by the Steelheads does Nicolas consider joining the company; even then, it is so that he might be able to eventually strike a blow against Khador.
Part Two: Spilling First Blood
The second part of Cold Steel continues the narrative device of Nicolas sharing his experiences with the young Llaelese recruit. In this installment, Nicolas picks up just after his training to be a Steelhead mercenary is complete. Nicolas’s story is about his first assignment and subsequently his first battle as a trained Steelhead. The details used here emphasize the grim prospects and fresh horrors of war, straight from the eyes and ears of someone not yet fully accustomed to such monstrosities.
Part Three: Facing a Harsh Reality
Nicolas’s cautionary tale of the mercenary life continues in part three with him sharing the harshest truth of being a true mercenary: you are bought and paid for, and that includes those you see as your enemy. Now Nicolas shares how he had to face this reality when his company accepted a contract with Khador and the challenges he faced, both personally and professionally.
Part Four: Betrayal
In the latest chapter of Cold Steel, Nicolas Verendrye relates a story of betrayal from within the Steelhead company. His unit takes part in a mission at one of the most pivotal battlefields in the Iron Kingdoms; only to face a major set-back that nearly saw the end of Nicolas. Also of note in this tale is Nicolas’s encounter with a particular character in the setting; not going to spoil the surprise by stating who, but it is a good cameo.
Overall, Cold Steel is an exciting and enjoyable read. As a character study, it is great to see how Nicolas Verendrye evolves over time through his work as a mercenary. And this development is evident to the reader, but it is also obvious to Nicolas himself. As a series of war stories, they adeptly illustrate the costs of war and vengeance: that you are gambling with your life and your sense of self.
It is that latter aspect that personally draws much praise. The challenge in any action-oriented narration is losing out on tension. When a character is narrating a story, then the threat of losing that character is gone from the internal story; the narrator obviously survived, so why should we be worried about them making it out? In Cold Steel, that tension exists not because we fear that Nicolas will survive (sarcastic-spoiler alert: he does); but how much of that younger Nicolas is going to remain? How far has he come in this journey?
In terms of a war story (or rather, stories), Cold Steel does an excellent job of selling the notion that the narrator has experienced some harsh truths in his embattled life. Indeed, the tone conveyed is one of caution and concern towards the audience; in context, the young recruit. Each part conveys their own pervasive theme throughout and help to carry the overarching story along to its eventual conclusion.
The detailing is also noteworthy. While I may not personally feel immersed in the scene (i.e. I do not experience the same smells or sounds as the characters do), I do immediately visualize the world with the words painting the world. The combat segments are equally masterfully crafted; each sequence is taut with intensity and filled with the ordered havoc of a true battlefield.
Being familiar with the Iron Kingdoms, it is extremely satisfying to read a piece of fiction that wonderfully ties into the overall established setting. Little touches here and there that reminds us of the world that these characters inhabit. With the above cameo, it helps to tie and cement this story and subsequently Nicolas Verendrye into the setting and become part of the lore.
As a backhanded compliment towards the writing style, the foreshadowing used is very well written but does make the eventual twists less surprising and shocking. The groundwork is laid out for us to follow to the most logical conclusion; unfortunately for trope/genre-savvy readers, they can “see what’s coming” further in advance than might be intended. However, this can also be symptomatic of the narrator’s storytelling skills (as opposed to the author’s); in this matter, it further testifies to Miles Holmes’s skills at crafting an effective and well-told story.
One of the big challenges to writing any fiction to an established setting is familiarity and audience-accessibility. And here, Miles does an excellent job making sure the audience can follow along with the narrative without feeling like they don’t get what is going on. However, in order to get the most out of the experience, the reader would need to be familiar with the Iron Kingdoms setting.
Overall, the Cold Steel series is very well-written and extremely enjoyable to read. As mentioned, it is an ongoing series with at least one more, if not two more segments foreshadowed for future release. I look forward to reading all of the future installments and see just how much more of Nicolas has changed from that survivor all the way back from part one.
And now, the shameless plug
- Home | Privateer Press
Privateer Press is the Seattle-based gaming company that produces the Iron Kingdoms role-playing game, WARMACHINE, and HORDES; all part of the setting wherein Cold Steel takes place.
- Home | Skull Island eXpeditions
Privateer Press's publishing branch. Here you can find Miles Holmes's other works available for purchase.