We have arrived at the finals of the first annual Self-Published Science Fiction Competition (SPSFC), with every book vetted by three separate judging teams in order to get to this point. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be reading the six finalists that did not go through my own judging team, starting with a truly epic tome: Iron Truth by S.A. Tholin.
Pending whatever comes from this run to the finals, Iron Truth hadn’t generated much momentum on social media, though the few reviews that exist on Goodreads invariably cite Warhammer 40k as a setting comparison. I haven’t dipped my toe into that particular franchise, so I cannot remark on the aptness or inaptness of the comparison. But Iron Truth does feature an empire that dominates the galaxy and no one group that’s clearly on the side of right. Joy, the first of the two main protagonists, has embarked on a long-range colonizing mission, only to emerge a century later on a hostile planet at the fringes of a galaxy controlled by the Primaterre Protectorate, which has achieved galactic dominance as one of the few organizations with a process by which to resist the deadly plagues of demonic possession. Meanwhile our second protagonist, Cassimer, leads an elite force of Primaterre on a highly classified mission to retrieve a missing architect ship on the same planet where Joy was stranded.
While Iron Truth provides a quick hook with the disaster aboard Joy’s ship, it then pivots to several chapters introducing Cassimer’s unit and their mission. There is danger from the get-go, and I’m not sure it would register as a slow start for fans of military sci-fi, but as a reader who doesn’t gravitate toward the military subgenre, it was difficult to immerse for the 70 or 80 pages it took for the two storylines to intersect.
But once Joy and Cassimer met, it kicked off an engaging story that wove together so many different elements that it’s honestly hard to decide where to focus for the review. There’s Cassimer’s mission and both parties’ attempts to survive and escape hostile territory, plus something of an enemies-to-lovers romance, a deep dive into the history of the Primaterre and Cassimer‘s own traumatic past, and then there’s a present-day mystery that quickly becomes the main plot of the entire book and dips more than a toe into sci-fi/horror. It’s a lot. But in a good way.
Once the character and setting introductions are finished, there are a host of interrelated questions that drive the rest of the story. What caused Joy’s ship to crash so far from its intended destination? Why do long-term residents of this planet behave so strangely and persist in making such cryptic comments to outsiders? How are those two questions related to Cassimer’s secret mission to retrieve another missing ship? Is the demon-fighting Primaterre the stabilizing and positive force that Cassimer believes them to be, or do the stray facts that don’t quite fit suggest something more sinister?
Despite the novel’s length, those questions provide plenty to drive the plot, and while Iron Truth is not able to fully explore all of them—this is, after all, the first book in a series—there are none truly given short shrift. The characters don’t understand every nuance by the conclusion, but they learn enough about each of those questions to make the various subplots feel satisfying. And the romance woven into the space between questions feels well-paced and unlocks plenty of character insight. I was concerned early that the story would gloss over the ugly side of Cassimer’s single-minded dedication to his mission, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that dedication challenged both by Joy and in Cassimer’s own self-reflection.
The slow, military-heavy build kept me from loving Iron Truth from start to finish, but once I began to understand the outline of the story, I was truly hooked. Cassimer’s relationship with his past and with his people was interesting enough to drive an entire book by itself, and the aspects of that storyline that remain after the close of Iron Truth are enough to make me very interested in the sequel, even though the first book offered closure on some of the chief plot points. For fans of slow-building epics, there’s a lot here, and it’s all worthwhile.
Recommended if you like: epics, elite military units, mysterious planets.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for Self-Published (and if it doesn’t win SPSFC will also be hard mode for Award Finalist), and it also has Family Matters and No Ifs Ands Or Buts.
Overall rating: 16 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.
SPSFC Score: 8/10 for my personal score. We will await results from the other judges before announcing an official team score.