Author: Laura Anne Gilman
Pages: 384 pp
Price: $26.00 US
Laura Anne Gilman’s Flesh and Fire gets points for originality and creativity. Too much Fantasy literature these days is derivative, unimaginative and just plain lazy. It all seems to take place in the same generic landscape with the same recognizable history, religions, and ethnicities. Little thought is put into how culture shapes our lives or how the environment shapes culture. I’m sorry, but if magic worked the way it does in these books and elves, dragons and other mythical creatures freely walked about you wouldn’t have a world that looks like a bad day at a Renn Faire. And don’t even get me started on how the same tired plotlines keep getting recycled over and over again. (Or why the mindless bestial horde that the unlikely hero must triumph against – with the aid of a band of plucky misfits he gathers during his quest – is always swarthy-skinned and comes from the south or east.)
Thankfully Gilman’s book is a bird of a different feather. She has clearly put a lot of thought into her world-building and its unique culture. Or, more specifically, viniculture. You see, in this world grapes possess magical properties and potent spell-wines are made from them. Originally there was greater access to these but the spell-wines were abused by greedy and powerful prince-mages who warred amongst themselves and caused unimaginable devastation. The gods intervened and now only a handful of individuals have the ability to work with the potent energies of the spell-wines. It takes years of study and discipline to master the art of brewing these wines, and those who do are forbidden from holding power. Which is fine by them since all of their time and energy goes into caring for the vines and the land that nourishes them, with which they have a deep and intimate connection.
Gilman has spent a great deal of time herself studying the art of viniculture, traveling to a number of different wineries around the world to do so. She brings that love and knowledge to her world-building and as a result it all feels very authentic – perhaps a little too authentic. While I enjoyed learning the process of making spell-wines along with our hero (who starts off as an apprentice Vineart) after a while it just got to be a bit tedious and overwhelming. And that’s saying something because, as a Dionysian, I’m a dedicated oenophile!
All of Gilman’s energy goes into creating this novel and highly detailed world, with its unique and interesting culture – but at the expense of characterization and plot. Frankly it was difficult at times to tell various people apart. Most were dull and uninteresting; they stumbled into the scene, gave their mechanical lines and then faded back into oblivion. Most of those lines, too, failed to drive the plot along and were horribly repetitive. Worst of all, I just couldn’t bring myself to care about the main characters – when I could even keep them separate in my mind – and what was happening to them – when things actually happened, which was all too infrequent if you ask me.
Of course, in Gilman’s defense Flesh and Fire is the first installment of a proposed trilogy and it does seem like she’s just getting started, taking her time to set the stage. Maybe things will improve with the subsequent books, but I’m not really interested in finding out. (Even though it ended on a bit of a cliff-hanger.) I’m sick of Fantasy series. Why does it always have to be a giant magnum opus? What happened to solid stand-alone books that manage to tell a good story from start to finish? They used to exist; I greedily devoured them in my youth. But these days you’re lucky if the tale is told in a trilogy. To be perfectly honest I think this would have been an excellent short story. It’s a neat idea, but not much more than that. It feels too padded, like Gilman is writing to please her publisher and not the audience.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’m going to pour myself a glass of wine to wash the taste of disappointment out of my mouth.
[Sannion is the religious name of Greco-Egyptian polytheist author H. Jeremiah Lewis. You can find his books The Balance of the Two Lands: Writings on Greco-Egyptian Polytheism; Echoes of Alexandria: Poems and Stories;and Gods and Mortals: New Stories of Hellenic Polytheism on Amazon or order them at a store near you. He is also author of the forthcoming collection From the Satyr’s Mouth. He leaves in Eugene, Oregon, but can be found online atThe House of Vines.]