Next up: “Fires of the Faithful” and “Turning the Storm” by Naomi Kritzer.
This was a surprise find; I don’t take a lot of risks buying a book blind (ie without reading reviews) but “Fires of the Faithful” sounded really interesting so I went for it. No regrets; it’s a great little duology.
Eliana is a student of the violin at a rural conservatory in the Mestierese Empire (a pseudo-Renaissance Italy fantasy country), which has just won the war against the neighboring Vesuviano Empire. Thanks to the powerful magic of the Circle, the Mestierese Empire has reclaimed the land their enemies had occupied.
Eliana and the other students at the isolated conservatory are only distantly aware of what’s happening outside their little sphere. This begins to change when a new student arrives. Mira is quiet and talented, but there’s something strange and secretive about her. She doesn’t use magic– not even the witchlight that everyone can use– and she knows more of the forbidden Redentore songs than anyone else at the conservatory. All musicians know at least one song from the forbidden religion; there is something to the music, some power, that is beautiful and compelling. Eliana, Mira, and some of the other students secretly form a group to play the songs. Even though it is against all rules and laws, they don’t think much of the crime, at least until the Fedele inquisition comes to the conservatory. One of Eliana’s friends is outed as an apostate of the forbidden Redentore faith, and is executed on the spot. And then Mira is kidnapped by the Circle… and just before she is, she reveals a secret to Eliana that could get her killed– it wasn’t the Vesuviano soldiers sowing the fields with salt that is causing the famine in the Mestierese Empire. Instead, it was a consequence of the Circle’s magic use, and something that the Circle wants to keep silent.
Shocked by the death of one friend, the loss of another, and the revelation of the dark side of the Fedele faith, Eliana decides to leave the conservatory and return home. But home is in the area affected by the Circle’s magic-born famine. And Eliana finds herself quickly embroiled in the Redentore-based rebellion that is gathering steam in the withered lands.
So, this duology is interesting because it has two different types of magic that are divided according to religion. The Circle uses the magic of the Fedele faith, and the Redentori use magic that’s based on the music of their religion. I really like the idea of music magic, let me tell you. Music is really interesting in real life (that arranged sounds can evoke such powerful emotional and sometimes physical responses in people is endlessly fascinating to me) and I can totally buy that there’s magic in it.
The religions themselves are pretty interesting, too. Both are female-led. The Redentore faith is very similar to Christianity in that the single god figure had a son on earth who died for humankind. But it also feels similar to Judaism in a way that I can’t really put my finger on. And while the Fedeli are clearly the ones ‘in the wrong’ (using magic that saps life from the earth, and even from its practitioners), the Redentori are shown to have flaws, too. They’re very real, and very human.
Eliana was a decent protagonist. I liked that she didn’t get sucked into either religion and was very much her own person from start to finish. I guess my biggest criticism is that she sometimes came across as emotionless and cold. She wasn’t the most personable character, which is less a failing in how she’s written, but more a deliberate character trait. You don’t often get a woman character who’s like that and isn’t some sort of villain or crone-like figure. Eliana’s also interesting in that she’s one of the few LGBT+ characters I’ve encountered whose sexuality isn’t the primary driving force behind their narrative. There are a number of books that address the struggles of LGBT+ folks in terms of prejudice and such, but not a whole lot where the main conflict is something else entirely and the protagonist just happens to be LGBT+ (not that there’s no prejudice in the duology’s ‘verse, but it’s not at the fore). There’s value in the first type of book, certainly, but… It’s like feminism in books: I struggle against the patriarchy all day every day, and while reading books about characters in the same struggle is validating and everything, sometimes I’m tired and I want to step away from the struggle and just have an adventure. I think it’s probably the same for most people and most injustices. Let’s have inclusivity across ALL types of books, please!
There’s some sexual creepiness from a villain in the second book.