Hodder SF/Fantasy (1998)
Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack (this review was first published in August 2007)
This is one of Masson’s earlier novels, but it displays a number of characteristics that have since become her hallmarks: the use of traditional fairy stories or legends, lively characters, and settings that seem once removed from reality.
In this case, Masson has based her plot primarily on the English fairy story Tattercoats, with elements of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I didn’t know the story of Tattercoats, but it had a sense of familiarity nevertheless as it shared many of the themes common to English fairy stories. (For those who are interested, Masson has included a short and straightforward retelling of the Tattercoats story at the end of the novel.) However, I know A Midsummer Night’s Dream very well. This was probably a disadvantage, as the elements of A Midsummer Night’s Dream used in Cold Iron were fairly slight, and since I was looking for them I was conscious for much of the novel that the comparison between A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Cold Iron seemed a real stretch. I’d probably have enjoyed the novel more without having had that comparison suggested in the blurb.
Cold Iron tells the story of Tattercoats (Lady Susanna), a young princess neglected physically and emotionally by her grandfather after her mother’s death in childbirth. Her father is abroad, and has not been seen for years, although he writes at times. Her grandfather has become almost deranged by his daughter’s death, and seems unable to appreciate what he might have left in his granddaughter. Her only friends are Malkin, also an orphan, although a kitchen-hand, and the gooseherder Pug. When Tattercoats sets her heart on attending a ball at court, these two protective friends go with her to help and guard her. And it quickly becomes clear to Malkin that Pug has much more to offer as protection than his knowledge of the world.
This is a slender novel, and if published today it would probably be characterised as young adult. However, like much good young adult fiction, it could equally well be enjoyed by younger or older readers. The plot is relatively simple, and has a strong sense of familiarity due to its use of a fairy tale framework. The real depth to the novel comes from the characters. Tattercoats herself struck me as rather shallow and simple. She could hardly be blamed for that, having led a limited and sheltered life; she comes across as a pleasant, if child-like and naïve, character. It’s Malkin around whom the plot really turns. She’s very real; we find it easy to understand her occasional flashes of jealousy and her struggle to overcome them with her very genuine concern for her friend and her essential generosity of spirit. She also seems to be the only one of the characters who fully recognises the magic that becomes a part of their journey, and the only one who sees reason to be somewhat wary of the wonders that are cast in their path. Pug appears to be behind much of the help they receive on their journey; he is a mysterious character with depths that are never fully plumbed.
Masson has judged the length of this well; it’s a simple story, and if she’d made it too long it would likely have seemed awkward and padded. Although it’s a very short read, it’s an enjoyable one. I didn’t find it entirely absorbing, in part because I was distracted by trying to find the references to A Midsummer Night’s Dream that the blurb referred to. That won’t necessarily be a problem for most readers. And apart from that, this was an enjoyable recounting of a story with familiar themes and events, driven largely by some strong and interesting characterisation.