I will be the first to admit that this was a shameless case of judging a book by its cover. I mean, look at it! It first came to my attention as a contender for the 2018 SPFBO cover contest, so when the book went on sale for Kindle, I knew I had to pick it up.
Facing genocide at the hands of the bloodthirsty Winden, the Farrow people seek refuge in Celest, capitol city of the Gol. The Gol are historically isolationist, but many among them take sympathy on the Farrow’s plight. Others, however, would prefer to be rid of the Farrow interlopers, by any means necessary.
Recovering-pyromaniac Kay is a mixed-race half-Farrow, half Gol who works in Celest as a finder of lost children. When she receives a mission to search for a missing Farrow child, she finds herself unexpectedly at the center of the refugee crisis, swept into both Farrow and Gol politics, and forced to confront a past she’d rather forget.
This book reads partially like a police procedural, and partially like a political thriller. Short and fast paced, Gately wastes no time sweeping us along into the action.
The plight of refugees is one that is unfortunately all too familiar in the news today. Since the protagonist deals especially with finding refugee children, the situation became all the more poignant. I think the political situation in this story is where the writing really shone the most. Gately did a great job painting the cultures of Farrow and Gol. The good and bad people of both, and the ways the two cultures clash and come together.
Despite the current cultural relevance, Gately does all this without at any time feeling ham-fisted or preachy. The situation fits organically into the setting and feels universally human. The only possible exception — and it might be a coincidence — is the character Banden Milo, the vehemently racist rabble-rousing pundit, who bears a strikingly similar name to two similar characters in the real world.
Although I appreciated the tight pacing of this book, I did actually think it could have been just a little bit longer, with a few more quiet scenes to get to know the characters as people. I truly believe that all of the characters are well-realized and three-dimensional in the author’s head, but we, the reader, just don’t have enough time to get to know them. Too often Kay will feel a strong emotion related to another character, but we just don’t see enough of those characters interacting to feel the emotion is warranted. Gately also has a tendency to briefly introduce new characters then have them show up again many scenes later without much context. For such a short book, I found myself scratching my head fairly often, trying to remember “Who’s this person again?”
Then there is the fire eye itself, the glowing fire in the sky that looms above all this, literally and figuratively. The fact is that we don’t ever actually find out much about it. Kay receives comfort from the fire eye, and somehow it helps her resist her latent compulsive pyromania. Kay fears she will revert to her old ways if she doesn’t look at the fire eye every year. However, we are told this but never really shown it. I never felt any real narrative tension that Kay would lose all control without it. For being so central to both the Gol civilization and the title of the book, I often had trouble remembering it was even there.
What does seem clear, however, is that the fire eye is central to the world’s fire-based magic system, which is also tied to the mysterious, villainous Winden and their compulsive drive for murder. These things are touched on in the book, but not explored deeply. I imagine they will be a much bigger part of the sequels.
Tightly paced novel with excellent worldbuilding that could nevertheless benefit from slowing down and really allowing us to feel what the characters are feeling
Reddit Fantasy 2018 Bingo Squares
- Reviewed on r/fantasy
- Non-Western Setting
- Takes Place Entirely Within One City
- Self-Published Novel
- > 2500 Goodreads Ratings