It probably won’t surprise you that I started to write ‘Cold Iron’ intending to write a novel about rival fencing masters contending for control of the nightlife of a city. In fact, that’s little to do with the eventual novel, which is deeper, more complex, and with some serious thought about violence and its consequences thrown in… The painting above, by my friend (and sword student) Keight MacLean, illustrates four of the principle characters.. and their swords.
In Cold Iron, there are rival sword schools, and a great many types of swords, and a fair number of sword fights. I thought it might be fun to blog about the swords themselves, and how they shape action, and maybe even character.
In the world of Cold Iron, the main action takes place in the ‘Empire’ which is roughly analogous to the late 17th century Venetian empire, if a whole lot of things were changed… If you want to learn lots about the world, feel free to read my ‘Guide’ which you can download for free at http://christiancameronauthor.com/index.php/the-long-war/artwork-resources/cold-iron-readers-guide/.
There are numerous types of swords, because the Empire contains several cultures and borders on several more. The sword types have, as in our world, been developed and refined by circumstances, both martial, as in the development of martial arts and armour, and fashion, which is sometimes just as practical or impractical. Carrying really big swords is clumsy and difficult unless you are on horseback; hard to draw in an alley, too.
And the Empire is old; thousands of years old, so you can assume they’ve already tried other swords, and used them and moved on.
The two main cultures of the Empire are the Byzas, who view themselves as the ‘original’ culture that built the empire, and the ‘Arnauts’ or ‘Souliotes’ who are a highland, cattle-raising people probably descended from the losers in an earlier series of genocidal wars.
And now, the swords.
The standard sword of both cultures is the ‘arming sword.’ This is a simple, single handed, straight, usually double-edged sword with a long-ish blade and a fairly simple hilt. This one has a complex ricasso to cover the hand, and a good, wide, sharp blade, and is very like the sword Dahlia usually carries. Who is Dahlia, you ask? She’s the dark-skinned, pale haired swordswoman (and mage) in the painting.
Note how wide and heavy the blade is. Not a rapier, but a kind of broadsword with a complex hilt, capable of punching though armour. Another variation might have even simpler hilt design; this is the kind of arming sword most of the characters use when fencing in the schools.
Byzas nobles, at least most of them, wear swords mostly to mark their status. They wear ‘small swords’ and many of them use these light, fast swords to fight duels and fight in the streets. The ‘small sword’ is a street weapon; not as useful as an arming sword or ‘side-sword’ for fighting on a battlefield, but much easier to carry.
These are slim but deceptively tough. Some have very wide blades close to the hilt, where the owner can make parries against a heavier sword, while having needle like points that can penetrate the best chain mail.
Souliotes (and their cousins in Atti across the straights) prefer a curved sword. Among the Souliotes it is called a Kilij.
The blade is light, but the reinforced point makes it a slashing sword with very good handling, and a trained swordsman can thrust with it as well.
Further east, among the Safiri peoples, it’s called a shamshir.
The Shamshir is lighter and faster than the kilij, but its close cousin, and in fact, the two names are almost interchangeable.
Even farther east is the magnificent land of Zhou; one of the main characters has traveled from there, and he owns, and wears, two different swords; a court dao like the one he’s wearing in the illustration at the head of the blog, and a battle dao. His battle dao is very similar to a 16th century Japanese tachi.
And finally, the protagonist has an old sword that’s too heavy for him. He bought it in a theive’s market in the heart of the city where he studies the Ars Magika; it’s probably a thousand years old, with an almost four foot blade. This clunky old weapon is all Aranthur can afford, which has certain consequences for him. Its old, but the steel is good, as he’s a big lad…
And note that rare, complex hilt on a two handed sword; a hilt that will cover your hands, and maybe keep you alive…
Listen, as you know, I love swords. I collect them, I fight with them, I teach their use. I wanted to write a novel where swords were at the heart of the action; there’s some swordsperson in jokes added to the fight scenes, and every fight scene is meant to portray or even teach a real-world sword lesson based on the manuals of the 16th and 17th centuries in our world from Portugal to China. But I want to stress that I built cultures to go with the swords, because straight or curved, single handed or two-handed, the swords design reflects the needs of the culture. Swords are never purely ‘efficient.’ Wear ability counts; people have different needs on horseback and on foot, in cities and in the countryside, at war or at peace; facing armoured opponents or unarmoured opponents. Steel matters too, and manufacturing capabilities; the techniques required to create a two-handed Italian long sword are very technologically different from the skills required to make a migration-era broadsword. In our world, steel quality determined the creation of the Japanese tachi and later the katana; steel-working techniques made central Asian swords mostly curved, and left Western European swords mostly straight. (I recommend the ‘Knight and the Blast Furnace’ by Alan Williams to anyone who wants to deep-dive into steel working as a cultural artifact.)
Swords. One of the ways I chose to build my world. I hope that you enjoy Cold Iron.
Published by Gollancz, 30th August 2018
Paperback £16.99 | eBook £8.99
Gripping and action-packed
fantasy with a historical twist.
Aranthur is a student. He showed a little magical talent, is studying at the local academy, and is nothing particularly special. Others are smarter. Others are more talented. Others are quicker to pick up techniques. But none of them are with him when he breaks his journey home for the holidays in an inn.
None of them step in to help when a young woman is thrown off a passing stage coach into the deep snow at the side of the road. And none of them are drawn into a fight to protect her.
One of the others might have realised she was manipulating him all along . . .
A powerful story about beginnings, coming of age, and the way choosing to take one step towards violence can lead to a slippery and dangerous slope, this is an accomplished fantasy series driven by strong characters and fast-paced action.
'Terrific medieval fantasy with three-dimensional characters, realistic battle scenes, intricate plotting and attention to the minutiae of medieval life.’ - JOHN GWYNNE
Miles Cameron is a fantasy novelist who currently lives in Toronto, Canada. He is a military veteran and has a degree in Medieval History.
His debut novel (The Red Knight), first in The Traitor Son novels, was one of the most acclaimed fantasy debuts of 2012 and nominated for the David Gemmell Morningstar award. It is followed by The Fell Sword, published in 2014.