Book Review and Author Interview: Touch of Iron (The Living Blade #1) by Timandra Whitecastle
The author Timandra Whitecastle kindly agreed to answer some of my questions! So, below is my review and following is the interview.
This fantasy novel had everything I love: fast-paced plot, fearless female main character, no-holds-barred fight scenes, some romantic/sexy moments and laugh-out-loud humour. It’s gritty, sweary, a bit different and has an intense grimdark feel.
The aforementioned main character is Noraya, or Nora, who is slightly feral, is skilled at fighting and is primarily concerned with looking after her twin brother. Owen is the opposite. He’s a bookworm and rather wise. Twins are considered a bad omen, so they were disowned at birth, found and taken in by a couple who ran the local blacksmith. For a while, Nora and Owen helped their foster father by burning and gathering charcoal for the forge.
Then, for one reason or another, the twins run away and while out in the open bump into a half-wight, a messenger of the old gods, and the party he travels with. Which just so happens to include a banished Prince desperate to get his empire back. Nora and Owen are sucked into this group’s quest to find the Living Blade, a legendary artefact that bestows great power on the one who wields it.
They journey to see Queen Suranna, who’s, well, a bit of a bitch. She rules over a hedonistic place with harsh consequences for those who break the rules. But she knows information about the Living Blade’s whereabouts. Suranna is a despicable character, but I really enjoyed reading about her.
The characters are well-rounded and distinct, and the world’s lore and history unfold at a gentle pace that never feels confusing or overwhelming. The prose is easy-to-read and effortless, and I tore through this novel at super speed.
The fight scenes are intricately done and there are some intense moments and themes, but I found myself rooting for Nora throughout. She says what she thinks and stays true to herself. She has no interest in the Living Blade, in fact she doesn’t think it even exists, but is passionate about protecting her brother – and he’s invested in finding it. She’s sarcastic, clever, brave and almost constantly horny (ha! She’s a teenager after all).
Touch of Iron is an adult fantasy that’s stark, at times a little shocking and wonderfully written. I can’t wait to read the second book in the series, On the Wheel.
My rating: 5/5
Goodreads | Author website
Q. Please tell us a little about yourself?
My name is Timandra. I write stories - mostly dark fantasy. I grew up in England until I was about ten, but then the fire nation attacked and everything changed... and my family moved to Germany where I still live. Or something like that, anyway.
I think Gustave Flaubert described it best when he wrote: be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work. I love that quote. Now, I don’t claim to be very original in my work (though it IS violent at times), but neither am I entirely orderly in my life, so I guess that’s a nice balance?
However, yes, that’s pretty much me. I thrive on routines, but enjoy breaking out of them on occasion. I’m a listener instead of a talker. I’m that person who even if you were to see her at a party or a gathering (let’s face it, though, you probably wouldn’t see her because she’d be too busy reading in a corner… or because she’s that kind of parent who actually enjoys having fun with her kids) - so if you’d see her, you’d quickly forget she was there, because, honestly, she’s a bit of a bore, and who notices boring people when someone else is spectacularly trashing the flowerbeds, others are bitch fighting in the kitchen, or having loud sex upstairs…?
Q. What is your favourite book and why?
I don’t really have one?
I mean… there are books I love but have only read once or twice maybe, and then books that have become touchstones in my life that I revisit fairly regularly. I’ve embraced quick reads that were great fun, but I don’t really remember what was going on - just certain scenes with certain characters. I have - madly, drunkenly - had intense affairs with books that have gut-punched me to the floor several times, and then left me bleeding my poor aching heart out, and I still go back to them again and again.
Other books took me years and years of trying to read them, some of which I have fallen in love with gradually as I inch further and further along their pages, only to then read them all in one gulp; some where I have concluded that this book just isn’t going to work for me, ever.
My favorite book is one that holds up a mirror and reflects a part of me I always knew was there, but I didn’t have the words to articulate it. And then I do.
Q. What got you into writing?
Goethe once said: we are shaped and fashioned by what we love. And I happen to love reading.
As I reader I automatically curate, I collect what I love, what I’m attracted to, and I cull what I’m not attracted to. This is obviously very subjective, like all art is. My taste may be very different from what everyone else is loving at the moment. Maybe it’s exactly what everyone is loving at the moment. I can’t really tell until I’ve read a sample, or even the whole book, and only then can I say, this one I will keep. This one I Did Not Finish (DNF). Writing is very similar. As I writer I curate ideas, themes, motifs. I cull what isn’t working.
The other thing about reading, too, is that I get excited about mashing together all the things I love, making something new, something uniquely my own perception.
This is the place in the corners of your mind where a lot of fanfiction stems from: the love for a piece of art, or the frustration with it, turns into the act of taking all that you love about it and then gleefully adding this other thing you love to it. Austin Kleon says that you should be aware of the genealogy of ideas, and see yourself as part of a creative lineage. “You can pick your teachers and you can pick your friends and you can pick the music you listen to and you can pick the books you read and you can pick the movies you see. [...] You are the sum of your influences.” (Steal Like an Artist. Seriously go buy this book!)
A lot of people believe that reading and writing are on two different ends of the spectrum - that one is passive, the other active. But that’s just not true. One begets the other. Reading leads to writing which leads to reading.
I love reading eclectically, widely. I don’t do research, I just search. I stumble across things that interest me, shiny little tidbits in National Geographic articles or stories on Wired. I watch shows and movies and notice what I latch on to, and what I pull away from. I read and I look at my bookshelves and think of all the classics I’ve read, and the non-fiction, and the latest trends in my genre and subgenre - and then I see what I’m missing. The book I’d want to read.
And then it comes full circle. See, what Goethe didn’t say was that it works two ways: just as I am shaped and fashioned by what I love, so too what I love is shaped and fashioned by me. And the resulting love baby is something else altogether.
Q. Touch of Iron is the first book in The Living Blade Trilogy, described as an action-heavy, strong-female, character-driven dark and gritty fantasy. Where did the idea for the trilogy come from?
It’s always hard to pinpoint this exactly, because ideation is rarely just from one source. It’s very much an amalgam of all kinds of stuff.
So. On the one hand, I think the core idea for this story came when I was a newly born mother, reading while nursing my daughter during the sleep-deprived hours of every night, and I had picked up Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy and binged it (5/5 would recommend.)
Now, at the end of Last Argument of Kings, there’s a final chapter with the character from that trilogy that I connected with the most (Logen Ninefingers) that brings him spinning right back to his very first chapter in The Blade Itself. Through it, the entire First Law trilogy is bookended beautifully, and a cycle is set in place, and it was a pretty powerful moment for me. I remember closing the book and sitting there in the dark, staring at my bookshelves, thinking: where are the books with tragically broken female berserker characters?
And yet, at the same time also thinking: where are the stories about tragically broken female berserkers who manage to break the cycle?
On the other hand, there was a story I had been trying to write for years and just never seemed to be able to finish. It writhed and twisted and transformed in my hands, until I thought: maybe I don’t have the skillset to write that particular story YET. Maybe I should focus on acquiring that skillset. My goal was then to try and finish a rather simple heroic fantasy story in order to get some writing chops, and then try this other story again at a later point in time.
Then those two things - the impact from the First Law, and the desire to get more skill at writing my own original stories - collided, and eventually I had a rough version of the first part of Touch of Iron.
Q. What did you most enjoy about writing Touch of Iron?
Learning how to write it. Learning that process is a messy place, and that you can glean so much from friction when you work through it and understand where it comes from. Learning to trust my gut feeling with scenes that suddenly appeared and I hadn’t planned for. Learning to listen to what the characters (those pieces of me running amok on the page) were trying to tell me about themselves and about myself, instead of imposing ideas about narrative structure on them.
Figuring out that you can only find your voice when you use it…
Q. Who is your favourite character in Touch of Iron and why?
I don’t really play favorites with characters, because they’re all bits of me, and it feels weird to openly admit well, I rather like that distorted, refracted mental image of myself more than this other distorted, refracted shard of myself, lol...
However, I really enjoyed writing Diaz. Originally, he was going to die towards the end of the book - you know, like Obi Wan dies at the end of A New Hope, but continues to guide Luke on his journey? But then I thought… actually… I don’t want him to die. His story isn’t finished yet. He’s not complete, and he’s more than just a mentor. He needs to find his own voice, his own purpose.
Obviously that choice messed up most of what I was going to write from that point on, but by that time, I had thrown most of my planned plot points to the wind anyway, and, thank goodness, I always had Nora shouting at me what to write next...
Q. Can you tell us more about the second book, On the Wheel, in The Living Blade Trilogy?
The second book picks up where the first one left off, pretty much immediately, and what follows is a the dreadful fallout from the events in Touch of Iron, plus new terrible decisions are made by characters all around to make things even worse, so… that’s always fun. One one-star review said that this book is bleak, and yeah. It is.
That said - second books in a trilogy are often a descent into the darkness. Things fall apart more, people unravel, and show their truths more. The pieces are set for the final battle… you cannot have a daybreak, if before there was no night. So… it’s all good.
Q. The third and final book, Mother of Slag, was published earlier this year. How did it feel to conclude writing the trilogy?
I had struggled with Mother of Slag a lot. I re-wrote it several times, starting from scratch. And then re-wrote the entire first section in a feverish rush just before the release. So, to have it done and out there came as a relief, and yet a strange hollow feeling as well. It’s hard to leave these characters alone when you’ve spent so much time with them. I wrote this trilogy and its accompanying novella in the span of four years. The main story was told, and it was time to let go.
But here’s the thing … while the main character arcs are completed, the theme is done, the main antagonist defeated, I know in my head that the story of the Living Blade isn’t over at that point. I just chose to put the period there, instead of carrying it over. I did it because I knew that the story of what happens with the Blade afterwards is a very different one than the one I told in this trilogy.
I might still write that story one day. I’ve deliberately left myself enough wiggle room to return to Nora and Diaz at some point - though secretly, I wish that I had readers who’d write their own stories of how they think it’d continue...
Q. What writing projects are you currently working on / excited about?
I’m going to quote Austin Kleon on this one again (Read. These. Books!). In Show Your Work he highlights a way of working that he calls chain-smoking. “Here’s how you do it: Instead of taking a break in between projects, waiting for feedback, and worrying about what’s next, use the end of one project to light up the next one. Just do the work that’s in front of you, and when it’s finished, ask yourself what you missed, what you could’ve done better, or what you couldn’t get to, and jump right into the next project.”
Listen, both Nora and Diaz have issues with their parents/parental figures/ patriarchal authority in the Living Blade trilogy, and I knew that this was something I needed to poke at more. At the same time, while I was re-writing MoS, I read Nicholas Eames’ Kings of the Wyld (which is another book recommendation).
Just like when I’d finished Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, I sat on my own after Kings, staring at my bookshelf, thinking, yeah, okay, but where are the stories about the mothers going on adventures instead of the dads? Where are the moms?
So, that’s the story I’m writing now. The working title is Viking Moms. It’s a norse-inspired fantasy story about a small all-female warband who re-unite after years in order to rescue one member’s daughter from a besieged city. Sound familiar? grins
But wait! There’s more!
It is a truth universally acknowledged in Heroic Fantasy that mothers NEVER go on adventures.
Mainly because mothers are dead.
And even if they’re alive, someone must stay at home and mind the kids while the menfolk are away on quests and SAVING THE WORLD, right?
Not in this story.
In this story, mothers are in the spotlight and they are done being fridged. Sure, they believe the children are our future, but only if they manage to save the world from Ragnarok first. And look - if there’s one thing a harried, overworked, bone-tired mother of one or more kids knows, it is this: taking on a murderously fierce dragon for a change is actually a bit of a relief...
Q. Where can readers find out more about you?
Check out timandrawhitecastle.com and pick up a copy of my FREE novella Bloodwitch
Or connect with me on Twitter: @timwhitecastle
Or Instagram: @timwhitecastle
Thank you Timandra, I can't wait for Viking Moms! And I love this quote: "Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work."
>>My debut novel, a grimdark epic fantasy called MELOKAI, is out now! Available from Amazon, Kobo, iBooks, Google Play Books, Barnes & Noble and Smashwords. Read more about my books here.<<
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