Epic fantasy runs the gamut from grimly dark to wryly optimistic, all the way on to damn near fluffy; and from very, very long to only moderately tree-killing. As well as, of course, from excellent to terrible.
Sword of Fire and Sea, Erin Hoffman's debut novel—the first in a projected series called The Chaos Knight—is on the short side for the opening volley of an epic, clocking in at just over 270 pages in trade paperback. It's the story of Vidorian Rulorat, a sea captain maneuvered into escorting a youthful fire priestess through perilous pirate-controlled waters to a temple far to the south. A terrible enemy pursues the priestess Ariadel Windhammer: the telepathic, sorcerous cult known as the Vkortha. She penetrated to the heart of their secrets, and for that they will pursue her to the ends of the earth, seeking her capture or her destruction.
In the course of her protection, Captain Vidarian will learn more secrets than he ever imagined—secrets that will thrust him into a world-threatening breach between volatile elements and ancient powers, and force him to face terrible choices. In terms of tone, Sword of Fire and Sea straddles the line between the poles of dark and light: serious, but not grim; earnest, but not unwilling to raise an eyebrow at absurdity. It's pacey. And it is absolutely full of Cool ShitTM.
There are gryphons, firearms, pirates, whirlwinds, flying horses, mid-air battles, kidnappings, divine apparitions, seaborne kingdoms, and the badass queens thereof; a goddess of chaos who talks inside Vidarian's head and says things like Correctamundo and See you later, alligator; a gate between universes, a race of winged men, and blood plague—a sickness caused by magic.
This presents a slight problem, because the Cool ShitTM comes rocketing along so quickly you hardly have time to begin to consider the implications of each fresh development before the next arrives hot on its heels. Many things are touched on without explanation, and without any attempt to fit them into a coherent frame: while Hoffman's Andovar possesses depth and imaginative worldbuilding in full measure, it lacks the connective tissue which would present the reader with a more integrated impression of this world's diversity and complexity.
Magic in Andovar is introduced in the novel's opening pages, and is part and parcel of religion. It's divided along the lines of Empedoclean elemental cosmogony between the powers of Fire, Water, Earth, and Air, and rests in the hands of four separate priestly orders. The role of these priestly orders is never quite made clear, but the fact that they—or certain of their members—have significant pull is fairly obvious. The fire priestess Endera, for example, whose mannered confrontation with Vidarian opens the book, is not only able to command great wealth, but also to compel Vidarian's assistance by virtue of a previous obligation acknowledged by his family, the Breakwater Agreement.
Despite its impressive name, the nature of the Breakwater Agreement—why, exactly, does Vidarian feel under a duty to the fire priestesses?—is never specified. To my mind, this is a most irritating lacuna: Vidarian's reasons for accepting Endera's commission are never adequately dealt with. Likewise, the reasons behind certain of Ariadel's actions are, on the face of it, baffling.
"Just a dock cat."
. . . "I feel she must come with us," Ariadel said. (pp. 24-5)
This is very portentous adoption of a kitten, to be sure. Although M'sieur Fateful Kitten does turn out, much later, to have Secret Superpowers, the handwavey auguring tried my patience out of all proportion. Moments like these, where an action is taken for counterintuitive reasons, or for reasons not made apparent, don't happen all that frequently throughout the text, but on occasion a development leaps out of what seems like nowhere. They damage the novel's coherence: it's all very fine and well to go rocketing along enjoying the ride, but if every now and then something makes you say, "The what now? How does this make sense?" it gets a little difficult to keep enjoying the Cool ShitTM, fun characters, and the twists and turns of the thriller-like plot.
Vidarian and Ariadel's relationship develops naturally from friendship towards romance during the course of their trials. They're interesting characters, and well-drawn, despite the fact they occasionally make slightly inexplicable decisions. Indeed, the characters in general—particularly the gryphon leader Thalnarra and the West Sea Queen Ruby—are well-drawn and compelling, which makes the baffling moments all the more puzzling.
Endera, for example. She wants to control Vidarian, who has come into his own as the Tesseract, a man who controls the elemental powers of Water and Fire and who now possesses a connection to the power of chaos. At a climactic moment, it's revealed that this particular fire priestess is in league with allies of the Vkortha, whose sect is—apparently—completely antagonistic to traditional religion and magic. All well and good . . . but at this point, I'm a little lost. Surely there was some more sensible way for Endera to pursue her goals than to set Ariadel to investigate the Vkortha, with whom her allies turn out to be associated?
Perhaps I missed the clarifying hints, but at the very least it seems that Ariadel and Vidarian are thrown together for reasons that, in the final estimation, make a lot less sense than they really ought to.
The personal conflicts which arise as Vidarian comes to realize that the fate of magic, and of the world, rests upon his choice make for compelling stakes on both macro and micro scales. There is a magic gate between universes, behind which long ago the goddess of the void, the Starhunter, was sealed. Vidarian can choose to lock it forever, and allow magic's decline to continue, or to blast it open and let chaos return. Whatever his decision, he is bound to lose someone for whom he cares: either Ariadel, or the Sea Queen Ruby.
Hoffman's writing has flashes of elegance, and some lyric turns of phrase, but her line of direction isn't always smooth. The lack of fine-grained control combined with the speed of the pacing makes me feel that this debut could have used a little more cooking.
For a debut author, it comes down to a question of trust. As a reader, you have trust the author to deliver on the promises implied in the text, and with a new author, the reader doesn't have quite as much trust as they might for a more familiar name. Hoffman delivers on her promises successfully much of the time, but there are moments where the twists of the plot might have benefited from a less breakneck pace.
While Vidarian's final decision and its costs are passed over perhaps a little too swiftly, the climax is worth the journey—and the book's conclusion is surprisingly self-contained for the first of a projected series. A sequel, Lance of Earth and Sky, is in the works, but Sword of Fire and Sea isn't particularly cliffhangered, although the ending holds out the potential for interesting future developments.
Despite its flaws, Sword of Fire and Sea is an absorbing read, and one which I found immensely fun. Personally, I'd be willing to forgive far greater imperfections for half as much entertainment.
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