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Review Spotlight

Ladies of Grimdark: Touch of Iron by Timandra Whitecastle

AUTHOR’S WEBSITE: https://timandrawhitecastle.com/
SERIES: The Living Blade Trilogy
PUBLISHED: May 20, 2016 (Self-published)
PAGES: 354
GENRE: Grimdark Fantasy, Epic Fantasy

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Blurb

A magic sword. A fated quest. When the world is on the brink, one woman dares to defy destiny…

Is the Living Blade real or just a legend?

With it… Prince Bashan could win back his kingdom.
Master Telen Diaz can free himself of the burden from his past.
Owen Smith sees a once-in-a-lifetime chance to gain untold knowledge.

… but for Noraya Smith, the Living Blade will bring nothing but suffering and sorrow.


Review

ALSO REVIEWED AT: Goodreads

Touch of iron. Touch of home.

Touch of Iron is Timandra Whitecastle’s debut novel, and is a savagely alluring tale of the danger of beauty, and the beauty of danger. It’s an account of an epic quest for a magical artifact, conscious sacrifice, and the ties that bind; the bonds of family, the bonds of love, and the bonds of necessity. This story also closely examines the effects of power and the inevitable manipulation that will surely follow. There’s a bit of adventure and romance, and lots of suspenseful action and gruesome violence, both physical and sexual – the latter more implied than explicit. Initially interpreted with a Young Adult/New Adult tone, this initial installment in her Living Blade series quickly evolves into a bleak, gritty, and unrestrained grimdark that hits hard, and refuses even a moment of rest.

The main focus of this story is on its characters and their relationships, which grow and develop in the most authentic of ways. We follow the misadventures and misfortunes of Noraya, Nora for short, as she journeys to protect the only aspect of her life that truly matters to her: her twin brother Owen. Each the other’s converse, she’s resilient, headstrong, impulsive, and dangerous, unsure of her path in life, whereas he’s a book-smart academic, determined, naive, and relatively certain of what his future holds. Their campaign brings along diverse company, including an enigmatic and reserved half-wight pilgrim master, a treacherous and vile exiled prince, and a calculating monster hidden beneath a sultry facade. There’s plenty of banter, but also sincere and poignant emotion.

There’s also a romantic element to this tale resulting from an unexpected budding love, despite the jarring differences between the two characters involved. Both struggle with their feelings, internally and outwardly, yet sexual tension exquisitely oozes from the pages beginning with their first encounter. The challenges they face along the way, which should negatively impact their relationship, only serve to make it stronger. As someone who has read quite a bit of fantasy infused with romance, I really appreciated how Whitecastle approached this trope of forbidden love, making it progress in such a magnificently organic fashion.

In addition to strong characters, the worldbuilding in this book is incredible, and at times it feels as though this story could possibly be categorized as historical fiction. Whitecastle shapes a dark and vivid world around us as we venture alongside Nora, only presenting us with critical building blocks. She smartly omits overwhelming details, allowing our imaginations to run rampant, which I always appreciate in a book. The world itself is full of tales of dead gods and superstitions, each piece crucial to the grand scheme as we watch the story arc unfold. There are also facets influenced by mythology and folklore, creating another bridge between the fantastical world she has created and our own.

The hunt for a magical relic featured within the pages is one that could potentially change the world in its entirety, and its scope becomes more ambitious and convoluted as the story continues. Unforeseen twists add to the intricacy of the plot introduced, and as the complexity increases, the danger increases. This advancement is basically the root of all conflict. The action is intense, the violence is ample, and the bloodshed is sufficient, each becoming more excessive as the story progresses. Following this trend, I’m excited to see what levels Whitecastle takes us to in the remaining books of the series.

Touch of Iron is a severe and tragic account of a woman’s pilgrimage in an unfair and somber world, and an absolutely fantastic debut. Raw and visceral, there are so many things worthy of praise, and this review only begins to scrape the surface. My favorite part of reading this book was discovering new depths along the way, and I only hope that future readers have as much as an exceptional experience as I have. If you’re into darker fantasy, but also appreciate unexpected moments of tenderness, then I highly recommend you give this a read. I’m excited to continue my journey for the Living Blade.


The Spotlight

Timandra Whitecastle lives in North Germany. She is a native speaker of both English and German.

Reading is an obsession that borders on compulsion most days.

Her short story “This War of Ours” has been nominated by the BSFA (Best Short Fiction 2018). You can find her other short fiction in various anthologies as well as in Grimdark Magazine.

Tim has never bothered to get a life because she feels like she’s been trying to lead three different ones already – and, yes, she totally stole that line from Terry Pratchett. Also, she’s partial to Mojitos and Baileys … er, just in case you meet her in a bar and want to buy her a drink, say. (She knows people don’t actually read author’s biographies, but feels mentioning this might be worth a shot … or two.)

Sign up to her newsletter House Whitecastle and claim a free copy of her novella Bloodwitch, set in the world of The Living Blade, TODAY

WEBSITE: https://timandrawhitecastle.com/


Thanks so much for joining us, Timandra. Since we already have your official bio, care to tell us about yourself in ten words or less?

Ten words or less, huh? How about a snatch of lyrics instead: I am a woman, with a mission, a past to out-do. I don’t need a gun, I got a microphone and a melody or two – Nikka Costa, So Have I For You

Give us an idea of how Touch of Iron came to fruition.

Here is my favourite answer to this question taken from this early SPFBO 2016 interview: I’m a sucker for destruction. No, seriously. Where are the fantasy books that construct new worlds in which women create their own religious systems, governments, and economies instead of merely coveting a man’s crown or his throne? Where are the strong female heroes whose goals include the full destruction of their corrupt culture, instead of acquiring some percentage of ownership over it? The Fellowship of the Ring didn’t set out to talk nicely to Sauron and um kinda convince him to um let other people maybe like rule over their own kingdoms in a tolerant, politically correct manner. No, they saw the evil and they set out to destroy it. I need to see those kind of heroes being women. What’s more, my daughter needs to see them, too.

Was there anything specific you drew inspiration from while writing this book?

Lots of things. But hindsight is always 20/20. I set out to write this book because I wanted to write a story that slumbered deep inside of me, and which – no matter what form I gave it, what genre – I never quite managed to get onto paper. So I thought: well, maybe I can’t write this story because I don’t yet have the skillset to write it. So all I need to do is sharpen my writing skills and the best way to do that is by writing something you like. And when I set out to write Touch of Iron and what later became the Living Blade trilogy, I set out to have some (dark and twisted) fun and level up my writing abilities. 

But looking back now, I realize that I wrote that deeply embedded story instead. It’s here, a version of it at least, refracted into a grimdark fantasy setting. It’s the story of a young woman who resents having to be who she is not. Who wants to run from the monster everyone knows she must become, and encounters different, more horrifying monsters on her journey. A young woman who survives, is intent on survival. It’s part of my own story. But I think it’s also part of a lot of other women I know.

What comes first, the plot or the characters?

Always the characters. You can’t have plot otherwise. At the center of the story must be a character with a want, a strong desire for something, but also a need. And the trick, the author’s sleight of hand with plot is: to deny your main character what they want for as long as possible. And when you finally give it to them, make them realize it’s not what they needed after all.

What do you hope your readers take away from Touch of Iron?

Different things for different readers. Some won’t like it at all … and that’s fine. Like the poor man who gave it a one-star review, complaining that there was a sex scene in the second chapter already. And I felt sorry for him a bit because, my dear, that’s a sexual assault you had to read there – if you can’t tell the difference … don’t read on. Seriously. 

Some readers might revel in the graphic violence – I know those readers exist. And listen, I will not pull a punch once you’ve stepped into this ring with me. 

Others might read on because of the innuendo and tension between the two main protagonists Nora and Diaz … I’d love that.

But if there’s just one reader who says: I saw myself in this book and it meant a lot to me … that’s ultimately what I hope for.

What is “Grimdark”?

Grimdark is a word that stems from the Warhammer 40k tagline: in the grim darkness of the future, there is only war. Before we had that phrase, it was mostly called Dark Fantasy or Fantasy Noir. I like to think that those are good clues when it come sto a definition of what grimdark is. Noir fiction like Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe novels was written as cheap entertainment, pulp fiction, during and shortly after the war years of WWII. There is always war. And depravation. And struggle. In Chandler’s Los Angeles, there is rain and darkness. Additionally, the close links between Le Carre’s Cold War Spy Thrillers are a good place to start looking for the origins of Grimdark. There is always war or the threat of it. There are always horrific stakes if things go wrong, and in Smiley’s experience things ALWAYS go wrong. It’s the human condition in both these subgenres, that messiness, and in my TED Talk, I will show … joking. But only a little.

Funnily enough for a subgenre of fiction (which entails that people called writers spend an inordinate amount of time thinking and obsessing about the exact meaning of words), grimdark … does not have an easy  definition one can nail down. 

On the one hand, the difficulty of definition is a good thing, since it gives the word elasticity – what is grimdark? Anything the individual reader takes to be grim and dark. You know… Roland Barthes! Death of the Author! The existentialist’s maxime that everyone must create meaning for themselves. So grimdark for you might be a certain aesthetic, perhaps a certain nihilistic worldview. It’s a reaction to the bright and squeaky clean High Fantasy. It cannot be defined without that reflection. So it’s self-aware, for the most part. It’s bleak. Right? We can all agree on the fact that it’s bleak despite occasional lightning flashes of humor. Bad things happen. Violence. War. Suffering. If some of those things or all of them happen relentlessly, you’re probably in a grimdark landscape. But then again … *gestures at reality for a moment* … one could say that grimdark is more realistic fantasy. It feels more authentic against our current backdrop.

On the other hand, the difficulty of defining the subgenre can lead to some people to think that its excesses ARE what it is. 

So we get revenge porn. Violence porn. The spectacle of it all makes the violence hollow. Empty. Toothless. Porn isn’t sex, after all. It’s not the real deal. The performance of violence in grimdark fiction, however gore-y, becomes an expected background noise. If grimdark must be shocking, then you open with a shocker in order to let readers know – this is what you’re going to get. But there’s grimdark fiction out there that feels as though reading about the violence against, humiliation of, and dehumanization of the Other were merely a titillating experience, and not, y’know, a painful one.

This is what Abercrombie writes about the word Grimdark as pejorative in his The Value of Grit (2013 – geez, kids, but grimdark is getting OLD). That grimdark is seen as “excessively and unnecessarily dark, cynical, violent, brutal without purpose and beyond the point of ridiculousness.” I’ll say the word he doesn’t list here: IMMATURE. Some readers will wave it off, laughing: the over-exaggeration, the hyperbole of violence is a cue, Tim. This is not to be taken seriously. 

But then, I wonder, doesn’t that beg the question … exactly what kind of stories are we telling/consuming this way? Why? What are we, the authors, trying to say? What are we, the readers, needing to hear? And what does that say about us as individuals and as a society if these are the grimdark trends we follow into the mainstream spectacle that was the decade long reign of the Game of Thrones series? Sam Sykes asked in 2013 already: “How much weight does violence carry? What’s the worth of a good deed? Is striving to be a better person an unrealistic goal? If everything is dark, how can we tell?How many different ways can we say “people suck, war is hell, the world is a bottomless shithole” and still have it mean something?”

If everything is dark, how can we tell? is, I think, the central question that grimdark circles around. But, honestly, I’m not sure I’ve given you a good definition.

What about the Grimdark and Dark Fantasy genres appeals to you most?

The short answer to this is: I put people before things.

Going back to Abercrombie – in Value of Grit, he makes a strong case for grimdark showcasing a tight focus on the characters. It’s his first point in favor of grimdark, and rightly so, I think. For a long time, the Fantasy genre has always been cluttered with the trappings of setting: the maps, the glossary of monsters, the worldbuilding (read: eons of history that came before), the MAgiC sYStEms … There’s nothing wrong with those things. Many readers love it. But not me. I don’t want setting. I don’t care for magic systems – sure, theoretically, I know how my fridge keeps my food cold, but I don’t really care when I open its door. As long as it does what it should be doing – as long as it works – I don’t need the manual.

What I want from my fiction is human emotion spelled out on the page. I want messy, morally ambiguous people. Give me all the feels, and not just the nice ones. Not just the ones we should feel. Validate my feelings of hurt and pain and anger at the injustices of the world. Feed my fears, and reflect them back to me – show me my rage, too, give me words to acknowledge it, to express it, but also show me possibilities of dealing with these emotions. 

I want to care about deeply flawed characters, and though I see their awful traits, I see them and will be gutted if something happens to them. And something WILL happen to them. Something awful. I’m here for that visceral emotion – that element of psychological drama that dark and horror genres do so well. 

I want that old greek catharsis. What connects me to people who have been dead for two or three millenia? What about fictional characters from those times? My namesake is an ancient unfaithful greek queen in a tragedy. How is it possible that I understand the moral dilemma of a fictional character as written by a playwright in the 16th century? And not only understand the dilemma but recognize a modern day applicability of that same problem/issue? 

I want to see fractions of myself within a book, I want that mirror reflection to be held up to me so that I recognize myself. And not just myself, but what makes all of us humans the same underneath, throughout time and geography. I want to be seen, but I also want to grow. Books help with that. Good books – books that deliver that clarity of vision of myself –  all the more so.

You know why readers are far better at empathy than non-readers? Because we have lived thousands of lives under the skins of fictional characters already.

What’s a day of writing like in the shoes of Timandra? Do you have any quirks, routines, or rituals?

I don’t have a typical day – so instead I have an ever-changing process. It goes a little something like this: I have an idea, 

I jot down what I know about it (I have a file on my Google Drive), and then see if it can hold my interest for a while. 

If I find myself picking at it over and over again – before I go to sleep in the evenings, while cooking, on solitary walks through the woods or while the kids are hunting Pokemon – I figure out whether I can dedicate some of my time to this idea. 

I conjure up a probable outline. 

Then I write the first few thousand words to test-drive the characters. 

I get stuck. So I’m back at the picking and prodding stage, trying to figure out whether I’ve got a full story here. The outline sucks. I toss it. Try to make a new one. Try to figure out how much time it’ll take me to write this and whether I really want to invest that time.  

There’s a lot of back and forth. I hate it. I love it. Everything is wrong. I LOVE IT.

In the end, when I’ve settled into the idea – I know the characters better and I have a theme – I try to hammer out a rough draft as fast as I can go. 

And then I hate it again. It is The Worst™ 

So I go back and clean up the word vomit. It gets slightly better but still … it is not the thing I set out to write. Disappointment leads to procrastination leads to new shiny ideas! I realize it’s time …

I need feedback from someone who hasn’t written this. I wait, playing with other ideas in the meantime.

Feedback comes in. I grumble. I curse. I re-write. I try to do it fast – mercifully quick, like someone ripping off a band-aid.

And eventually, I let the story go because there are more ideas to be picked over … the cycle begins anew.

Writing can be a stressful pursuit. Do you have any tips for aspiring authors?

Yes. Strike the aspiring. If you write, you’re a writer. Period. Non-writing time spent planning, plotting or daydreaming about your story … also counts as writing. But write!

Write what you love, not what you know.

Understand there is no meritocracy. You may have written the bestest book – it can still die in silence. Emily Dickinson never knew she now has an audience. This does not lessen your worth or the merit of your book.

Show, but don’t be afraid to also tell. No child has ever asked their parent to show them a story at bedtime. There’s a reason it’s called storytelling.

Write what you care about – chances are someone else cares about that same thing, too. 

Most people around you won’t get what you are doing. It’s fine. They still love you. But! Find people, even if just online, who do get it and will encourage you to continue. Find them as soon as you can.

Show up. Work hard. Be kind. Keep going.

Thank you again for taking the time to chat with us, Timandra. Do you have anything coming up in the future that you’d like the world to know about?

I have a NOT-AT-ALL-GRIMDARK book coming out end of November 2019! It’s about a group of viking moms who go out on a quest to save the children, end up battling dragons, and facing down Ragnarok, complete with giants, female friendships, bad jokes, the Norns, and stabbing the Patriarchy … sounds like your thing? Check out Queens of the Wyrd

Justine Bergman

Web developer by trade, ravenous reader, excited reviewer, dark fantasy enthusiast, mother of pups, drinker of strong coffee, and player of games. I'm also a contributor over at Fantasy Book Critic and The Fantasy Hive, and I love sharing the love.

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