The Iron Crown by L.L. McRae (reviewed by Matthew Higgins)

 

Order The Iron Crown over HERE

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFO: My name is Lauren,
and I’m a fantasy author of character-driven stories and epic adventure. My
books usually contain dragons, bucket-loads of magic, and are typically fun and
hopeful.
 
 I
live in a tiny village in the English countryside, have a degree in Psychology,
and was a professional copywriter before going full-time as an author—swapping
corporate copy for magic and dragons!
 
 
OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: Tassar is a world of spirits — both life and
death.
What
happens when that balance tips, when vengeful spirits are on the rise, and
people are caught in the middle?
 
Fenn’s
first and only memory is finding himself in the middle of a forest, face to
face with a dragon spirit mocking him, all knowledge gone apart from his own
name.
 
Lost and
confused, his only hope for answers is Calidra—a woman living on the edge of
the world with her partner. Forced to return home when her father dies, Calidra
has put off facing her estranged mother for seven years, and she begrudgingly
helps Fenn, forging papers for him so he can avoid the Queen’s Inquisitors.
 
But her
mother is the least of her worries when they discover an ancient enemy is
rising again. It should be impossible with the Iron Crown in power—and Fenn is
terrified he might unwittingly be playing a part in the war’s resurgence.
 
Surrounded
by vengeful spirits and powerful magic, Fenn’s desperate attempt to find his
way home might well alter the fate of Tassar, and every power in it.
 
 
OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: The Iron Crown is a book infused with the joy of reading and an
adventurous heart. With some of the most inventive worldbuilding I have had the
pleasure of being immersed in, Lauren writes a fantastical quest fantasy for
the ages. Whilst the second half and the antagonists didn’t quite impact in the
way I’d hoped, it didn’t stop this book being a rocket ride of fantasy
goodness.
 
Grab your pen and paper ladies, gentlemen
and all non-binary folk, because you are really going to want to get L.L. Mcrae’s name to the top of Mt.
TBR! This book was an absolute delight in all the best ways, reminding me in
equal measure of the expansive and creative world of One Piece, the whimsical adventures of The Hobbit, and the youthful innocence of Assassin’s Apprentice, before the second half treads a darker path.
 
We start this adventure in classic Dungeons
and Dragons-esque fashion, our main character Fenn waking up in a mysterious forest with no memories except for
his name, and a dragon spirit questioning his presence. Off the bat, we can
identify with Fenn because we know absolutely nothing about the world, and one
of my favourite aspects of the book was seeing the scope of the world expand as
Fenn learns more and seeks further.
Now you might be wondering exactly what a dragon spirit is? Well, dear readers
this is one of the most magical aspects of this book which ranges from the
dragons all the way through to Griffins ( yes I know!! I was very excited too!
Who doesn’t like Griffins after all?!!!)
 
 To
speak more of the spirits, they are found in the world of Tassar, and each
spirit has their own domain to control. The most unique aspect of this is that
they form within different environments such as forests or mountains. They can
shift and change the environment however they like, and so there is a certain
playfulness as well as a darkness to be found there. Do NOT anger a
dragon spirit because they can either bless, or curse anyone within their
domain!
 
Now the dragon Fenn encounters is a pretty tricksy spirit, so let’s just say he
isn’t exactly at ease until he is found by our other two main protagonists of Calidra and Jiseyl. Jiseyl has a quirky nervous energy and a wide-eyed sense
of innocence swiftly becoming one of my favourite characters of the book. Calidra on the other hand is very
closed off, and extremely wary of this mysterious young man who has just turned
up on their idyllic island and disturbed their tranquil peace. 
 
A tranquil island indeed, for I could’ve
stayed there the entire book and been very happy, such is the beauty L.L. McRae has crafted within. In just
a few pages I felt completely at home, mostly due to the hospitality their
guardian Melandre offers to Fenn, and it is not often I read a book
to immerse me so swiftly.
 
Alas it is not to last, for there is
something darker emerging on the horizons. Fenn
and the others are situated on the isle of Salt, but the wider world of
Tassar lies on the horizon. Peace has reigned for five years since the defeat
of a deadly enemy known only as the Myr, however all of a sudden amnesiacs like
Fenn have begun to show up all around Tassar, and rumblings emerge of a growing
Myrish threat, one thought long defeated.
 
Thus, our characters set off on a seafaring
adventure, and this is where the One-Piece
connections felt most alike. A group of (mostly) strangers setting off on a
grand adventure into the unknown, where the world slowly grows larger with each
new adventure. I was completely in love at this stage! The worldbuilding (which
at times felt equally classic high fantasy and Polynesian inspired) felt very
natural, often flowing intuitively through conversation, and the central
mystery centred around identity was compelling and emotionally driven.
 
In fact, I’d go so far as to claim identity
as the major theme within the book, and one that is really well covered. Evidently
we have Fenn who quite literally has no idea who he is and has to wrestle with
that whilst Calidra suspects him of great mischief. Calidra herself has to
contend with her own battles surrounding her blood family, and realising that
family isn’t just who you are related to, but the people you belong with. These
are just a couple examples of the identity struggles which all our major
characters face, and within a YA leaning novel, I felt it was covered in a very
mature and thorough manner.
 
Not only did we cover themes of identity,
but woven throughout the world was such diversity, from the creatures all the
way through to our characters. Each corner of the world felt like it had its
own uniqueness, often coming from the different dragon spirits that control
each domain. It was also a joy to see positive LGBTQ+ rep in the form of Jiseyl and Calidra’s relationship. I honestly feel incredibly naïve looking
back and only realising midway through the book, however I like to think that’s
a testament to how natural and normalised it is.  Like an odd couple they’re often at bickering
odds, but their true love and affection for one another shines through.
 
Along the way we also pick up the
characters of Varlow, our typical
grizzled warrior character, and Selyss a priestess who may be able to assist Fenn in escaping his predicament. These
two characters I did feel were underdeveloped, perhaps by the nature of being
introduced later in the book, but considering the ways in which the central
three protagonists were brought to life, I was expecting more. Varlow has a very mysterious nature,
and initially it does play well, however the payoff in the end did feel rather
cliched and disappointed me the most out of all the characters. Selyss it’s hard to place a finger on
her character, and seems to be more there for the plot so far, although I hope
this changes in the sequel.

 

One final character who is mostly separate
from our fabulous crew is Apollo. Apollo
has all the trappings of a great character, an Indiana jones esque adventurer
in retirement after supposedly saving Tassar. He runs a tavern along with his wife
and is a really amiable guy! His story is most connected to the overarching
narrative of the Myrish threat and under normal circumstances he would’ve
likely been my favourite rogue-ish character. However, his plotline is introduced
very late in the game, and it felt like one required a reading of the Citrine Key’ novella (which recounts
Apollo’s tale prior to this book) to
get the most out of his character arc. Again, it was such a shame as I really
loved the concept and the way McRae
writes him, it was just unfortunate I was left feeling like I was playing catch
up. So, my one advice would absolutely be to read the
Citrine Key
first so you can truly get the fullness out of Apollo!
 
So far I have mostly focused on the exquisite
first half of the book which had me entranced, each new section of world
bringing a new wonder and excitement to the journey. It is incredibly well
paced, and I loved the fact that we discovered along with Fenn, which really made things run smoothly and not feel like the
worldbuilding was shoehorned in. It is in the second half of the book, where
the Myrish threat comes into focus and things turn a little darker that the
book took a minor downturn for me.
 
Let me start by stating I did really
enjoy the little snippets we got about the Myr in the first half. They felt
threatening, there was a heavy sense of foreboding on the horizon, and I was
really anticipating what was to come. However, when they started to emerge more
into the story, becoming less of a threat spoken of and more of a reality, it
was frankly underwhelming. They had been built up to be so horrifying and
terrifying, and there was a real sense of fear because it wasn’t
entirely clear what the Myr were. However, it did feel a rather rushed
climax that took the air out of a lot of what came before. This is not to say
it ruined the book, or I don’t think it’s worthy of reading time, it absolutely
is! It is just unfortunate that for me there was a gap between what the Myr was
setup to be, and what we actually encountered.
 
In terms of secondary antagonists, we had
the character of Torsten, an
inquisitor on the heels of Fenn as
well as Apollo, believing the
amnesiacs to be a threat to the nation and Apollo
to be a cheat who deceived the Iron queen. Whilst Torsten is a fairly typical antagonist, there is depth explored
there that allows him to exist in his own shades of grey, and I would like to
see this explored further in the sequel.
 
Overall, this book is a testament to McRae’s stunning worldbuilding prowess,
of which many other reviewers have remarked upon. It provides a fabulous sense
of adventure and wonder, each new corner of the land a true delight. With
powerful and emotional themes of identity driving the heart of this book it
certainly can pack its punch at times. Whilst the second half didn’t ultimately
live up to the exquisitely paced first half, it leaves events on a suitably
climactic finish, and with the reports of an even more impressive sequel L.L. McRae has firmly landed upon my
Mt. TBR.

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