If you are considering Martha Wells, I suggest starting with one of her books besides The Element of Fire. The Death of the Necromancer (review), for instance, or The Cloud Roads (review), or even The City of Bones (review). I thoroughly enjoyed–and own–all of them, though all are very different approaches to the fantasy genre. Fire was her debut book, published in 1993, and lacks the finesse of her later works. It is a more traditional fantasy focused on a court setting, with court politics, kingdom disputes and intrusions from the land of fairy defining the struggle.
Much like Necromancer, the story begins with a heist. It’s an engaging way to begin a story, but in this case, requires attention as the team begins an orchestrated break-in. Captain Boniface is conducting a raid of a foreign sorcerer’s house, an undercover mission to rescue a kidnapped but disgraced sorcerer Galen Dubell. At the same time, a theater troupe in the capital city of Vienne is preparing to perform with one of their new players, Kade. The two find themselves on the same side when a golem breaks loose during a performance. From there, both internal and external conflicts threaten to destabilize the kingdom of Ile-Rein. Captain Boniface finds himself unsure of who to trust, and Kade discovers herself questioning everything she knew about the court and her upbringing.
Viewpoint alternates between Boniface and Kade, creating a situation where the reader gets insight into each as they work to prevent the kingdom from falling to the opposition. The villain isn’t particularly hidden, but unraveling the complexity of the scheme keeps a few surprises in store.
It took a long time to understand the world Wells was creating, which hampered my initial ability to immerse into the story. Starting in the middle of an action sequence, in a fantasy setting with magical elements is only the start. Adding internal court politics that have their beginning in the distant past, a neighboring country with a radically different culture, as well as the realm of fae means the number of complicated elements build instead of resolve. As Captain Boniface and Kade are also attempting to find their emotional footing, it’s a lot to weave together, and enough for a trilogy. Sanderson, had he written this, would have made the events into a six-book arc. At least. Eventually I lost myself in the world, but I don’t know that this is a book that one would want to pick up and put down, or read over a month, at the risk of losing continuity.
While I enjoyed the writing style, the tone felt uneven. Though the book jacket describes it as stemming from a “swashbuckling tradition,” and cites “Errol Flynn panache, style, and atmosphere,” I would disagree. Multiple deaths and the possible fall of a kingdom raise the stakes beyond a simple adventure where all the hero risks is pride or a short stay in the local prison. These characters are fighting for identity, beliefs and ultimately, their lives.
If you are a fan of traditional fantasy, or a fan of Wells’ work, I’d give this a go. But if you don’t have large amounts of reading time, I’d recommend one of her other works over The Element of Fire, particularly Nebula nominee The Death of the Necromancer, which feels like a more polished version of this work.