The Big Idea: Stina Leicht

For her new novel Cold Iron, author Stina Leicht took inspiration in one of the genre’s foremost practicioners — but then gave that influence just a little twist. What’s the twist? A change of location.


About eighteen years ago, I happened upon an essay about the evils of Fantasy. In it, the author declared the whole genre to be inappropriate for Americans because it glorified feudalism. I was, I admit, taken aback by the audacity of that generalization. Largely because, well, Fantasy is a broad genre. It doesn’t only consist of stories about Joe Bob the lowly peasant farmer boy who finds the magic [sword/ring/stone] and goes off on an adventure with a mysterious [ranger/thief/wizard/bard/fighter] and thus, not only saves the kingdom from the [evil wizard/evil empire] but discovers he’s a long lost [prince/king/powerful wizard] who was foretold by the ancient [chronicles/fortuneteller.]

Fantasy outgrew that template sometime around 1986 with Terri Windling’s Bordertown anthology.[1] I’m pretty sure the likes of Charles de Lint, Ellen Kushner, Emma Bull, and Midori Snyder weren’t writing about how glorious it was to be the king. Nonetheless, there was a time when that template was in force, and to be honest, that was what drove me out of Fantasy for a while. So, I understood where that came from… to a degree.

Just not in 1994.

At the same time, that essay made me think about Fantasy’s origins. J.R.R. Tolkien is the father of Fantasy, and J.R.R. Tolkien was a British author writing mythology for the British people. Of course, feudalism features heavily in his work. And that was when I asked myself the question that got me started writing Cold Iron: What would Fantasy look like if Tolkien had been American?

First, I set up my imaginary world in the end of the eighteenth century. North America existed before that, of course[2], but after some thought, I decided upon the late eighteenth century anyway.[3] Mind you, I didn’t restrict myself to that period. I wanted The Malorum Gates to be a secondary world fantasy. Middle Earth is. So, I pulled ideas and technology from a forty year period… say 1770 through 1810. In addition, Tolkien, although he was using medieval sources, chose to give his characters modern dialog. Therefore, I did too. Tolkien’s elves were primarily Finnish. So, my kainen are Scandinavian.

Tolkien also used Middle Earth to discuss the realities of war—realities that had deeply affected him, specifically World War I. For me, that meant dealing with themes from the Vietnam War.
I’m not, nor have I ever been a soldier. Still, that doesn’t mean I wasn’t affected. You see, I was a child when the Vietnam war played out on national television. It was on the news every night. I didn’t understand how much that affected me, a GenXer, until Hollywood began making films about the war. Frankly, I couldn’t bring myself to watch any of them because they brought on panic attacks. It was so bad that it wasn’t until 1995 that I could bring myself to watch Full Metal Jacket, and I still haven’t let myself see The Deerhunter. You don’t have to be a soldier to be affected by war. Being human is enough.

I’ve always been a bit of a hippy. I don’t believe that wars solve problems. I believe they create them.[5] Even as a child I was conflicted. I agreed with the protesters about ending Vietnam. However, I absolutely did not agree with how they often treated soldiers. Subsequently, Nels and Suvi, two of my main characters, live in a nation (Eledore) that claims to abhor war. The kainen of Eledore fear death. There are reasons for this, but it’d be spoiler-y for me to tell you why right now. Just understand they don’t even talk about death, not directly. They pretend everyone lives forever. Soldiers carry a death taint. Therefore, when Nels takes up weapons to defend himself and a few villagers from raiders, he’s made an outcast, and his sister assumes his place in the leadership of Eledore.

Oh, sure, there are certain tropes I couldn’t bring myself to give up on—as you can see. Epic Fantasy kind of has requirements or it doesn’t feellike Epic Fantasy. However, Eledore will one day be a democracy, and it will be repopulated with immigrants… eventually.


[1] Maybe even sooner than that.
[2] Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82 by Elizabeth Fenn sites solid evidence that there were millions of American native peoples living in North America long before the white man’s westward expansion. In fact, the smallpox epidemic of 1775-82 was to the North American native population what the Black Death of 1347-51 was to Europe. That epidemic was started by white men who spread the disease among the native peoples with the intent of wiping them out. Smallpox was America’s first venture into germ warfare. Manifest Destiny, my ass.
[3] Some people will tell you that the Fantasy genre is a moveable feast. Writers can steal anything from any culture that isn’t nailed down. I’m not one of those people. My research indicated that a large segment of the native people of America are not happy with their culture being used as source material by white writers.[4] Thus, I respectfully decided not to go there.
[4] Ah, cultural appropriation.
[5] Yet, a great deal of my chosen entertainment contains war and violence. Trust me, I think about that a lot.

24 Comments on “The Big Idea: Stina Leicht”

  1. What a lot of people don’t get about the Americas and the native American peoples that most Europeans met in the 16th-19th century is that it is a post-apocalyptic landscape, thanks to that massive winnowing of population thanks to diseases in the Columbian Exchange.

    The colonization of the Americas would have been significantly different without that massive death toll.

  2. Many of the old histories of America always read like fantasy to me, especially with the strange, violent pictures they often showed us in the text books of grade school. I think I’ll be checking this book out to see if it captures that “feel” I use to get.

    One thing though–the intentional spreading of smallpox to Native Americans is far from an agreed on matter–in fact the evidence and scholarly opinion seems to mostly in the other direction. The famous “distributing small pox-laden blankets” story really just came from one proposal in a single communication that there’s no evidence was ever carried out. (Small pox is pretty contagious without it needing to have been spread intentionally.)

  3. Intent doesn’t change the result. By the time colonists arrived in Virginia & Massachusetts, the native population was already greatly reduced.

  4. Oh, my, Stina Leicht. I too grew up with the Vietnam war and still have not watched Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket, although I have seen the Deer Hunter (required in college). Before that I had night terrors about nuclear war, placing me at the end of the Boomers. I think that it is fascinating to think about the effect of the Vietnam war as related to World War I in a fantasy world. Looking forward to your new book.

  5. What Paul Weimer said.

    Hard numbers are difficult … strike that, *impossible* to come by, but conservative estimates are that at *least* 25% of the indigenous population of Central and North America died from smallpox and other European-borne diseases. Some estimates are as high as 90%. It was at least as bad as the Black Death, and possibly worse. The effect was probably very similar in terms of social upheavals.

    Contrary to the common view of pre-Columbian Americas, there were significant permanent indigenous settlements (some large enough to be considered cities), established trade routes, etc. Epidemiological effects being what they are, higher population densities were hit the hardest, which magnified the social impact. And trade routes helped the diseases spread.

    I will note, with respect to Ms. Leicht, that while there is documentation that there were some abhorrent attempts to intentionally spread smallpox among the native peoples, it’s unclear how much difference those efforts made overall. Diseases moved significantly faster than the general spread of non-indigenous settlement.

    Which is not to minimize the fact that some people did try to help the apocalypse along, nor the fact that there’s a very long list of other ugly human behaviors in that part of our history.

  6. Re: Tolkien as father of fantasy. Certainly fantasy predates Tolkien, by a couple of millenia at the outside. However, Tolkien is certainly, IMO, the father of Epic fantasy as we know it.

    The fantasy genre landscape would be inconceivably different without Tolkien.

  7. >> Intent doesn’t change the result.

    No, and that’s not what I was saying. What I was saying was that the oft-bandied about contention that the spread of smallpox was intentional is not supported by what evidence we have. Of course it doesn’t make the results any less horrible, but words matter, and if it there’s no evidence that smallpox was intentionally spread, it should perhaps not be stated that it was as if it were established fact.

  8. Feudalism in Tolkien’s work? No way! The Shire is an idealized 18th-century English county surrounded by a primeval (not medieval) world where Conan The Barbarian would feel quite at home. The basis of Feudalism is serfdom, peasants tied to their lord’s land. There’s none of that in Tolkien.

    And I concur with Daniel B. regarding the alleged use of smallpox as a biological weapon in the Americas. It’s one of the many myths I call ‘Occidentalisms’ in a deliberate reaction to Edward Said’s ‘Orientalisms’.

  9. Perhaps I just don’t understand the setup, but it seems to me that any culture that a) has dangerous raiders around and b) banishes everyone who defends themselves from said raiders is going to be conquered quite quickly.

  10. I’m a little disappointed that you didn’t include beans in your list of magical items that Joe Bob could happen across… ;)

  11. johntshea: Although you’re coorect, I assumed Leicht was using “feudalism” sloppily, to mean “aristocratic political structure characterized by bonds of personal loyalty upward and downward.”

    In that sense I, too, have been irritated by how relentlessly fantasy focuses on aristocracies and royalty, on absolute rulers of various types, and have wanted to see something different. But “Fraternal twins Nels and Suvi move beyond their royal heritage and into military and magical dominion” is NOT it.

    Basically, it seems as though she’s taken the pseudo-feudalism of Tolkien’s imitators and dressed it up differently, but it’s the same-old same-old.

    One reason I say pseudo-feudalism is more in Tolkien’s imitators than in LOTR itself is that the hero(es) of LOTR do *not* have royal blood or power, and they do *not* end up ruling. Frodo ends up — with shocking realism, when you look at the rest of the field — crippled by wounds and PTSD, while Sam becomes an *elected* leader.

    Tolkien’s imitators keeping ringing the changes on Aragorn for their heroes, they’ve never faced the challenge of creating heroes like Frodo and Sam. Epic fantasy is relentlessly aristocratic — Tolkien is democratic by comparison.

  12. There is at least one other series dealing with a homegrown American take on fantasy: if you don’t care for the man’s politics and other opinions, hold your nose and look at Orson Scott Card’s Seventh Son: the tales of Alvin Maker series. It does rapidly become a Mormon pastiche, but the first 3 books are interesting.

  13. Tolkien wasn’t writing ‘fantasy’, he was writing mythology with fantastic elements.

  14. Stina, really interesting premise concept! I look forward to it.

    And I’m glad I caught autocorrect before it changed your name to Stinks. :P

  15. Yep, not to get lost in all these side discussions–I agree that the concept sounds absolutely fascinating and well thought out–both in terms of setting and theme. Already in my “Next to Read” shortlist.

  16. Wrt the Columbian Exchange I remember an alternate history where the Native Americans had developed more urban cultures with nasties of their own. Which spread to Europe and had similar effects there….

    Now the obligatory Kipling:
    Gold is for the mistress — silver for the maid —
    Copper for the craftsman cunning at his trade.
    “Good!” said the Baron, sitting in his hall,
    “But Iron — Cold Iron — is master of them all.”

  17. Since others have also questioned the careless remark about the Indians, I’m going to ask about Ms. Leicht’s “I absolutely did not agree with how they [protesters against the Vietnam War] often treated soldiers.” Vague remarks like this are difficult to get a handle on, but if she’s referring to claims that the antiwar movement insulted or abused US soldiers, which is a vicious slander. It’s possible that some few individuals did say bad things about or to soldiers, but this has never been documented. See “The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam” by the sociologist and Vietnam veteran Jerry Lembcke. I keep hearing claims that someone’s going to publish a book that will prove the “spitting on vets” claim, but like the Second Coming, it never seems to materialize. It also appears that many Americans who believe that “hippies” vilified US soldiers got the idea from watching “Forrest Gump.”

    The only people who are known to have abused Vietnam veterans are *supporters* of the war. Lembcke reprints a news photo of a Vietnam veteran in uniform being pelted with eggs by bystanders for participating in a protest against the war, and numerous government officials including Spiro Agnew vilified Vietnam vets. So did the mainline veterans’ organizations, who regarded the Vietnam veterans of having “lost” the war. Other research has shown that Vietnam veterans encountered a sort of passive-aggressive hostility from people they knew at home who hadn’t opposed the war and weren’t interested in hearing about the vets’ experiences. In general, the antiwar movement supported and helped the soldiers, with the result that Vietnam Veterans Against the War became a significant part of the movement.

    It’s possible that Ms. Leicht had something else in mind, but in the absence of more specific claims I think it’s fair to suppose that she bought into the myth of protesters’ hostility that was manufactured for propaganda purposes by supporters of the war to justify and distract attention from their mistreatment of veterans.

  18. As a historian I feel the need to chime in here because there are some unchecked statements of erasure and rewriting. For documented cases of spreading disease in the Americas, and a nod here to this being an age-old practice:

    and for the cultural amnesia surrounding the treatment of Vietnam vets, there are any number of veterans still living who will tell you exactly how they were treated:

    Please do consider that history is a broad river with a number of actors and lots of folks very interested in surfacing particular stories within that history while drowning others.


  19. Interesting points, Doctor Science. And Tolkien knew what he was writing about regarding PTSD, having suffered from what was then called ‘Battle Fatigue’ during WW1.

  20. (PS to John – this is a lot longer than I originally intended. If it’s too much grandstanding, my apologies.)
    In response to the comments on the massive epidemics that … I was going to say “decimated” the Native Americans, but that means ‘killed ten percent’ and the opposite is what actually occurred – ten percent is the number some historians estimate for the survivors, which is the kind of catastrophe that no civilization can sustain. There really is no word in English for what happened in the Americas other than perhaps ‘holocaust’. “Genocide” doesn’t work, because that requires intentionality, and while deliberate extermination certainly occurred in the 18th & 19th centuries[1], the depopulation of the Americas took place in the 1500s, long before European settlement had extended deeply into either of the two continents.[2]
    It’s true that historians have, in recent decades, greatly increased the estimates of Pre-Columbian populations. Most of their evidence has come from archeological and anthropological studies. But there is a fascinating line of evidence from, of all people, climate scientists. When 50 million people (or more) stop burning wood for daily fires, and when 90% of the farms on two continents are suddenly abandoned and replaced by overgrowth and new forests, the planet itself takes notice. A new study in the journal Nature [3] details the sudden dive that atmospheric carbon dioxide took in the late 1500s, showing that after maintaining 280-290 ppm in the preceding 600 years, it fell to as low as 271 ppm in 1610. The authors call this point the “Orbis Spike”.
    This is also the approximate time to which a preponderance of historians date the beginning of the “Little Ice Age” – a vaguely-defined time of general cooling around the globe. There’s no agreement on dates but the first particularly deep drop in temperature occurred in 1650 and glacial expansion began about 1550.
    Hopefully, if enough people learn about the actual science behind the Orbis spike hypothesis, we’ll stop seeing nonsense in the legitimate press about sunspots causing a New Ice Age.
    [1] There was also localized abuse and extermination of different populations in the 1490s and in the 16th and 17th centuries, but not as a result of a continental expansionist policy and again, nothing like what happened on a hemispheric scale.
    [2] This is not to say that deliberate infection did not *ever* happen, although if it did it was probably either very rare or so abhorrent that perpetrators knew society would condemn it as a crime. There’s no hard evidence of any particular incident…with one exception: Fort Pitt, 1763. The Amherst-Bouquet letters discussing the tactic are pretty damning.
    [3] Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin. “Defining the Anthropocene.” Nature 519 (2015), 171-178. doi:10.1038/nature14258. The findings in the paper in Nature aren’t entirely new, but they provide a good summary and they’re available on-line. See also

  21. And P.S. to Stina Leicht – Your book sounds like something I love but can rarely find: American-based high fantasy. Thanks for adding to this sorely under-served subgenre. I can’t wait to see it in at my bookstore!

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