RogerBW's Blog

The Element of Fire, Martha Wells 22 August 2022

1993 fantasy. King Roland of Ile-Rien is a weakling controlled by his favourite; only his mother, the ageing Dowager Queen Ravenna, is holding the kingdom together. Meanwhile the sorcerer Urbain Grandier has fled from the Inquisition and kidnapped the one magician left at court. For Thomas Boniface, captain of the Queen's Guard, all it needs is the king's half-fey bastard sister Kade Carrion to be up to her old tricks…

This is a first novel, and at times it shows. There are too many characters, and their names start to blur together; there are too many things going on. But my word it's good nonetheless.

In setting it's something like Elizabethan (people wear lace and duel with rapiers) and something like Arthurian (one of Kade's "gifts" to the court was a goblet that no adulterer could drink from), with mixtures from other places: one of the ongoing tensions is the distinction between the old landlaw and the relatively new courtlaw, and the different rights they give to nobles.

And there's well-hidden research: the practicalities of going into a fight with a wheellock pistol, fencing, castle architecture and how it changes as a place is built up over centuries. Kade gets into the palace by getting a part acting in something that's almost, but not exactly, Commedia dell'Arte.

There are also vicious court politics, and an attack by the Unseelie Court comes almost as a relief… but of course there are alliances among the wicked, even if they may get strained at times. There's treason, both covert and overt. Fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles. And a floating castle. I gather that Wells now regards this as a crude early work, but I'm really glad to be able to say that I still love this book as I did when it was first published.

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