Two fantasy debuts that are trying something difference - Rae Carson's Fire and Thorns and Benedict Jacka's Fated.
It’s well written with an engaging heroine, Princess Elisa, who thinks herself useless, is jealous of her sister and ignorant about a great many things except tactical warfare, and there are some nice details and passages that kept me reading. The entire premise makes a change from many second world fantasies – Fire and Thorns is set in quasi-Arabian lands, with names that are reminiscent of ancient Turkey, Cyprus and Morocco and the world is highly religious to a monotheistic God. So far, so fairly unusual for your average young adult fantasy.
Elisa is the bearer of the Godstone, literally a blue stone in her naval placed there by God during her naming ceremony, something that happens once every hundred years. All bearers have a destiny to fulfil and they have been chosen to do something remarkable for their people. The issue is that Elisa doesn’t know what. The other issue is that she’s been hastily married to a neighbouring King who need her father’s troops for the war that everyone is sure will soon threaten the lands.
Elisa isn’t too sure how she feels about this, and is even less sure when, in quick succession, she finds out: a) her husband is a coward; b) her husband refuses to acknowledge that she is his wife; c) her husband has a mistress and a son; and d) that being the bearer means people are going to kidnap her.
Like all heroines these days, there has to be a flaw and a way of improving themselves, and in Fire and Thorns, Elisa is fat. Not just fat, she is an emotional binge eater – again, different and striking, and makes her character highly sympathetic as any emotional distress sees her cramming food into her mouth until she literally can’t eat any more. However, conforming to type, Elisa becomes thinner before a) anyone falls in love with her and b) she does anything useful. The book even spins out the cliché of the fat girl with the beautiful eyes – I suppose because eyes don’t change very much, it’s the safest part of the anatomy to praise in someone who is overweight.
It was frustrating that instead of Elisa realising she can be both sexy and useful the way she is - a positive message and good character development - Carson has her grow in confidence by magically losing weight. Reinforcing the idea that no man will love you unless you become thin is not a healthy message to send to teenagers across the world.
That personal bugbear aside, the book is a jolly adventure that throws the increasingly-plucky heroine into first loves, first near-death experiences, and first weeing on her own leg. It’s rather cheerful until you realise you are 20 pages from the end and you have no idea how the heroine is going to fulfil her destiny and save the day, as you presume she would do.
What happens next is a shocking deus ex machina that left a bad taste in my mouth – some mention of what gives Elisa her bright idea in the previous chapters would have made this feel less like a bolt out of the blue. It’s a shame because it lets down the rest of the book - disappointing that there isn't a better ending that plays to the heroine’s skills rather than relying on an intuition from God. I’ll give the author the benefit of the doubt as this is her first novel, and I hope that the second in the trilogy doesn’t create such an easy ending.
A particularly nice touch, however, is Elisa’s physical connection to the Godstone – it freezes when she is in danger and only through praying and connection to God can she warm herself. I quite appreciated the religion in this as it’s so often a peripheral contingent that perhaps a secondary or tertiary character pays attention to. A devout woman who has a fair amount of spirit in a novel is a rarity and I embraced that. I’m hoping that the issues raised in the book about the religion (the different sects, whether the enemies also have bearers) is addressed in the second novel, as more nuance in Elisa’s faith would be a welcome development.
In short, Fire and Thorns is an unusual young adult fantasy that doesn’t live up to its premise in the end – but I do count Rae Carson as an author to watch.
I was really excited to meet Benedict Jacka at last year's SFX Weekender, mostly because Fated (2012) has been promoted as the British Jim Butcher and I adore the Dresden Files. On the back of the novel, it’s a comparison that’s both a blessing and a curse. There’s no doubt it’s accurate: both contain wizards as the main characters, who both have a younger female sidekick-apprentices, call on spirits to help, imbue everyday objects with magical power and have very cool magical coats. You may be fooled into skimming it and thinking "why bother?" and then throwing it on the charity shop pile. But you’d be unfair to the book.
Fated's Alex Verus is a possibility mage – touted as a ‘diviner’, he can do so much more. He can look into the future – most specifically his future – to see what will occur with every different choice he could make. He does a nice line in figuring out what not to say in a confrontation to avoid certain death, for example. Most awesomely, he can look into his future, see the one where, say, he escapes from a room or opens a relic – and then just simply do what he did in that future to make it reality. It’s a handy trick. He can also ‘read’ objects and to a certain extent, people, to be able to figure out passwords and the like.
Alex's voice has yet to develop clearly, but as it’s the first book I’m giving Jacka the benefit of the doubt - currently the most memorable thing about Alex is the fact he mildly patronises his female friends by calling them a ‘good girl’ all the time. Actually, I’m giving him a pass because Alex’s power is so cool. It’s refreshing to find a hero who isn’t a badass.
In this magical London there are also energy mages, elemental mages and mind mages who are all capable of ripping him apart in one way or another, be they Light or Dark Mages. Of course, in this hierarchy of mages, Alex is a non-combatant with a highly nuanced power, placing him towards the bottom of the pecking order. Alex allows himself to be underestimated and plays things a bit wilier – which is a nice contrast with Dresden’s brand of ‘smack it and see’. The magic system creation is nicely done, wide enough to be interesting and to think ‘what kind of mage would I be’ but not so confusing that need a diagram as you do with Butcher’s universe. Alex’s talents are described clearly and while I’m certain there may need to be a fudge of the rules at some point in the series, so far, so straight.
However, where it does fall down in comparison to the Dresden Files is the lack of a clear morality. Dark Mages believe in a Rand-ian world where the strongest win, keeping slaves which they rape, torture and murder. You would think that perhaps they try to hide this, or that there is an ongoing war like the Death Eaters vs the Order of Phoenix. But no. At one point Jacka states that Light Mages care if a Dark Mage hurts another Mage - but don’t give a crap if they hurt a civilian, an apprentice or a slave. It seemed so out of place with general human morality, and so jarring with anyone’s sense of fairness that I came away thinking all Mages were clearly sociopaths.
Perhaps that’s Jacka’s point. I struggled with how a plethora of Light Mages could collectively turn such a blind eye, even with the excuse that the sense of self-preservation, but perhaps it was meant to isolate Alex further from both sides. For me, it simply made Alex seem morally weak – Dresden may sometimes aide a bad guy but it’s always for a definite reason and he normally has a plan to get even. I’m also a little unclear as to how with such power and a desire to rule everyone, the Dark Mages haven’t attempted to destroy everyone else. Maybe this will be explained in the next book. But Jacka’s going to have to show an awful lot of shades of grey to make up for this curiously monochrome world view.
Lizzie is the current publicity officer for the British Fantasy Society and lives in London with her fiancé and three cats. She prefers fantasy books and sci-fi films, which you can argue with her about on Twitter at @alittlebriton. She believes books to be a viable form of currency.