Call me jaded, I guess. It takes a lot these days to find a new author or series in fantasy or science fiction to really make me sit up and notice. After hearing quite a few people tell me that I should read this one, up off it came from my Mt. To-Be-Read, and I settled in for an evening's read.
Recommend this product?
Set in the land of Ixia, a young woman is rudely grabbed from her cell and hauled before an official. She has a choice, she's told, to either hang for a murder that she's committed, or become a food-taster for the Commander. It's not much of a choice, but Yelena eagerly takes the chance. After all, another day is another chance to plot her own survival and escape, right?
But it's not as simple as it might sound -- she needs to take an antidote to a poison that she's been tricked into taking, and it seems that the ghost of the man that she killed is intent on haunting her as well.
Told as a first person account, we get to see through her eyes the changes that have happened in the land since the Commander Ambrose and his troops came and overtook the kingdom in a military coup. Even the names of the countryside have been changed with a clutch of generals running Military Districts, numbered one through six, and even called MD1 or MD2 as needed. The old aristocracy and ruling family, who were all magicians it seems, were wiped out or fled south to a land called Sidia, and now in this remade Ixia, everyone has a job and everyone wears a uniform. No one has a real education, just learning enough to do their job. For Yelena, the world is all in hues of red and black clothing, blank walls where artworks once stood, and a real feeling of unease.
Her mentor in all of this is Valek, an arrogant right hand man of the Commander's, who's good at plotting and conniving and trading quips with Yelena. As she survives her training in poison and varied attacks by the father of the man she killed, and machinations by fellow servants, we get to find out her past, a very little bit about why magic is so distrusted, and the rumours of a rebellion against the Commander's New Order.
For a first novel, this one is barely acceptable. There are plots and counterplots, a real lack of any sort of logic to the setting, and a heroine who is (of course) pretty, smart, an acrobat, and evidently a tough survivor of abuse -- all at the age of sixteen or seventeen. It pretty much goes without saying that she excells at everything, will inspire loyalty in her fellow servants and soldiers, at least those who don't hate her on the spot, and is good and noble herself. Turns out that the man she killed was a real pervert who enjoyed torturing children.
In fact, there were some elements of this novel that made me cringe as I read it. One was the complete lack of any sort of credible fantasy setting -- Snyder is very lazy when she comes to the nomenclature of her land and people, everyone has just one name, no background, and seems to accept that life is good in this Orwellian fantasy of a land of happy human robots. One of the things that makes a fantasy novel work is that the author needs to provide some sort of colour and vibrancy to the story. Instead, it's all just dreariness and labour. The language is very much modern, 21st century idiom -- there's even an 'okay' or two in there, along with some modern slang such as 'camo,' 'termination' and the like. That, for me, completely yanked me out of the feeling I was reading a fantasy novel, and I started to dislike the book intensely.
It's one of the basic jobs of a fantasist to create a world that is different enough from the one that the reader lives in to have a sense of being 'somewhere else,' but have enough familiarity to keep the reader interested and sympathetic to the story. Here, I was left without any sense of history, or even why the Commander had bothered to take over, unless everyone has bought into the megalomania. And it's written in such a flat style that it was simply boring to read.
The cuteness factor is ratcheted up with the use of chocolate as a plot device and the author calling it 'theobroma,' the modern Latin name for chocolate in our world. It's laziness on the author's part.
Most of all, several parts of the novel have distinct episodes of sadomasochism, intended rape and other forms of nastiness. The descriptions are fairly lurid, and if the author did intend this for the Young Adult market, it's pretty disturbing. Some people can manage surviving extreme trauma and not be psychologically messed up, but sadly, the opposite is usually the case.
While I can applaud Snyder in trying to write a fantasy novel -- anyone who can get their work into book form should be cheered on -- this novel would have been much better if it had some more thought put into the setting of the novel, and a real effort at creating something that isn't the trappings of a military dictatorship with a thin veneer of fantasyland laid on top.
This might do for a young adult novel, but I suspect that most folks over the age of twenty will be bored stiff by this one. There are two more books in the series, and while I am certain there are fans of the series, I don't think that I am one of them.
Three stars, and I am being very charitable about it.
The series (so far):
Fire Study -- forthcoming, due March 2008
Maria V. Snyder
2005; Luna Books
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