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Reading Challenge Review: Flesh and Fire, by Laura Anne Gilman

A book by a female author (#9 on my 2015 Reading Challenge List): Flesh and Fire

I knew this category would be one of the easier ones for me to meet, but I’m always happy to add more female authors to my list. I chose to seek out Laura Anne Gilman’s work after stumbling over her recent blog post on how she decided to publish her epic fantasy under her own name rather than using a gender-neutral pen name, and she didn’t disappoint. Flesh and Fire, the first book in The Vineart War trilogy, introduces us to a young man named Jerzy who’s been plucked from his place as a vineyard slave to be his master’s new apprentice. In that role, he’ll learn how to work the magic that makes his master’s order, the Vinearts, so vital to the world they’re a part of — because in this universe, magic is all tangled up with wine.

Gilman’s dedication is to her agent, who she claims made a casual suggestion to “write me a food- or wine-based fantasy”; this book is certainly that in spades. I won’t say too much about the details of the worldbuilding, because a lot of the joy in the book for me came from discovering its twists and turns, but I’d feel comfortable starting where the book does, with a version of the world’s creation story. Paraphrasing and summarizing, it goes like this: in ancient times, the prince-mages held all the power in the land, political and magical; they managed the vineyards and crafted the powerful spellwines which allowed them to control the elements and heal the sick. But they grew arrogant, and so the gods sent their son to warn the prince-mages to be careful, and when they ignored his words and killed him, his blood spilled forth as the most powerful spellwine anyone had ever seen, and it changed all the grapes of the world into something weaker and more limited in their scope than what had come before. This gent’s known as Sin-Washer, and his legacy for people is a new political system that divides power between the Washers (priests), the princes (rulers) and the Vinearts (mages).

“And… Vinearts must spend their entire lives learning their vines, and have no time to build armies or rule over men, and princes, busy with the ways of men, have no time to dedicate to the secret and subtle ways of vines.”

We pick up our story a few thousand years after these events, and learn that in the meantime, things have been going pretty smoothly. As with most fantasy, that changes pretty quickly once the tale gets going, but we don’t see much of the ramifications in this first book. Flesh and Fire is largely a book of setup, introducing us to characters and places and how the magic system works — and if you’ve read other reviews of mine, particularly my take on Robin Hobb’s books, it won’t surprise you to learn that I was absolutely fine with that.

The negative reviews of this book on Goodreads echo those I read for Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice — suggesting that in nearly 400 pages, “nothing happens.” I didn’t have that impression at all; in fact, as I read, I was continually struck by Gilman’s skill with pacing, how she managed to spin a story that covers a little more than a year by skipping over all but the most important parts (this is, you may have guessed, something I struggle with). This isn’t really a story about the mysterious threat that’s rising to throw the world out of balance; this book’s meant to introduce us to the hero who we’re led to expect by the end of the book has some unique role to play in stopping that threat. And I think it does that admirably.

Warning: moderate, early-book spoilers beyond this point.

When we first meet Jerzy, Gilman doesn’t even give him a name. He’s “the boy,” one of the faceless mob of slaves tending the master’s vineyards. But when he has an unexpected reaction to the accidental overturning of a vat of spellwine, the master pulls him from the group and brings him into the house, and from that point forward, everything about his life is different. Gilman takes her time with this transition, and it eats a good chunk of the first third of the book. For me, that was exactly the right choice; I enjoyed being able to experience Jerzy’s shock and slow acclimation to his new world, and I admired the way Gilman used different perspectives to give us information about him that we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.

Another unusual thing about this book compared to its Big Fantasy Novel counterparts is that we see comparatively little magic until quite late in the story: in fact, one of the Goodreads critiques I read was that “it didn’t feel like a fantasy book,” an assessment which seemed to be based in the fact that most of the characters were mundane folk living their mundane lives and that nothing big and flashy happens for many chapters. I’d disagree with the point, though: I think the worldbuilding here is quite subtle, but clearly present, and strong enough to convince us that this isn’t the world the readers come from. While Jerzy’s world does fall prey to the accusation of being “not-quite-Europe” in many respects (it’s pretty clear that Gilman based the book’s two major settings on wine-growing regions in France and Italy), the religion is distinctive and so are the cultural attitudes. There’s also a “cost-of-magic” discourse here that’s unlike any I can remember seeing before.

More plot-peripheral-but-notable things:

  • I very much liked the device of starting the novel with the creation/changed world story. I’ve been tempted to do this sort of thing in my own work and have always drawn back from it, fearing that it’d be alienating to a reader, but this book pulled it off in a way that worked for me.
  • I was intrigued by the fact that Jerzy seems (at this stage at least) to be more-or-less asexual, an identity I don’t remember seeing as central to a main character in other books I’ve read. Admittedly, Gilman hints pretty strongly that his orientation may have something to do with his being a survivor of molestation, which I don’t love, but I did appreciate how his difference from the characters around him (who demonstrate both different-sex and same-sex attractions without either one’s being framed as inherently “normal” or “abnormal,” another thing I liked) was remarked upon (by others) and pondered (by Jerzy himself).
  • From a craft perspective, I also liked the fact that several characters who we’re led to believe will be major players in the books to come don’t appear until relatively late in this one. I’ve read a few discussions of plotting and pacing that say you shouldn’t introduce anyone important after the halfway mark, but Gilman breaks that rule and breaks it well.
  • For what it’s worth, I finished the book more concerned about what will happen to the hero than what’s happening to the kingdom; the sections of the book that moved away from Jerzy’s immediate concerns to give us a broader perspective on world events seemed less engaging to me, maybe because those characters were by necessity less fleshed out. I don’t feel like that makes one thread or the other “good” or “bad,” but I did find it interesting.

In short, while I didn’t think this book was perfect, I liked it quite a bit. I will definitely be seeking out more work by Gilman and looking to find out what happens to Jerzy and his friends and allies.