If you like magic rings and cryptic, bearded wizards, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is probably up your fantasy alley. If you dig dark elves and +5 broadswords, odds are you’ve dungeon-delved a time or two in the world of R.A. Salvatore. But if you prefer a fine glass of Chablis as you stroll through a Tuscany vineyard, you’d be out of luck to enjoy such elements in a fantasy book—until now. Laura Anne Gilman, author of the best-selling Retrievers novels, has a new oenophile-based fantasy trilogy that’s a welcome surprise to the fantasy genre which has seemed bereft of any real innovation for far too long.
Admittedly, the premise is intriguing. All magic comes from spellwines created by Vinearts, former slaves who are forbidden to engage in politics or government thanks to a decree by the Sin Washer, a deity who sacrificed himself fourteen centuries earlier to stop the madness that the power-craving prince-mages created through their reckless use of magic. Now the power of wine magic is much more limited in order to keep its power from corrupting users. This is simply the way the world works in the Vin Lands. No one has questioned it . . . until now.
Just as a fine wine takes time to develop its richness and full-bodied flavor, this book starts methodically and without haste, with an emphasis on developing world texture and explaining the intricacies of the grapes, vineyards, and wine-making process. The first clue that Gilman is not going to zing this story along with Tom Clancy speed is that her Prelude has a pre-Prelude—never a good sign if you’re in the mood for a fast-read airplane book, which so many fantasies are. But the Vin World is rich with vattage and vine, mustus and maturation, such that even non-oenophiles cannot help but feel immersed in a unique world full of a strange richness and beauty.
Eventually, it becomes clear that the main character is Jerzy, who is brought from the dangerous but simple life of a vineyard-tending slave to be an apprentice Vineart because of his innate ability to sense the dormant magic inside grapes. This ability is so natural, so potent, that Master Malech pushes his education at a severe pace because of something insidious—and magical in nature—is attacking Vinearts and their precious crops of grapes. The world needs a hero.
The maturation story of Jerzy is slow-moving. While Gilman provides numerous side stories to offer the sense of devious machinations at work in the world (undead sea serpents, sudden plagues, and unexplained disappearances), it’s only near the end of the book that Jerzy begins to realize his potential for knowledge, strength, and humanity that’s sure to emerge in books two and three.
In a book with such an interesting magic system, it’s almost disappointing that Jerzy is a relatively common fantasy figure—the young person from an inauspicious background whose untapped abilities for greatness—if cultivated properly—can save the world from utter destruction. He’s Luke Skywalker. He’s Harry Potter. He’s Frodo Baggins. He’s Eragon.
Still, what saves this book from being a mere long-winded setup for books two and three is Gilman’s exuberant writing style. Whether she’s describing the wine vats, the rolling landscape, or the characters themselves, she does it with power and grace.
Malech’s thumb stroked the skin over the mark, and Jerzy’s eye was drawn down to it, only to discover unmarked flesh. Before he could react, Malech turned his hand over, and presented Jerzy with it. The simple bright red brand that had identified him as a slave was gone, but a darker, rounded weal now rested on the outside of his wrist, as though a drop of wine had spilled from a cup and landed there, staining his skin indelibly.
The last few chapters of Flesh and Fire are genuinely terrific. Political, religious, and magical forces clash mightily in what promises to be the first of many future battles. Jerzy is finally forced to be an active hero versus a passive one (though admittedly it’s his new allies who are really pushing things along). And there’s a sense of the source of the evil magic running afoul in the Vin Lands. Not an answer, mind you, but a literal whiff of the source of the malady. Considering that the previous three hundred pages left the antagonist an utter mystery (“And it was an enemy they could warn no one against. Without a name, or a reason, no one would believe their misfortunes were not caused by a visible enemy, an attackable foe”), this smell of evil is a veritable bouquet that every reader will welcome.
A shortcoming of trilogies in general and this book specifically is the ending of the early books. Yes, it’s useful to have a cliffhanger closing when the next book isn’t due for another twelve months, but Gilman’s story kind of slams to a halt. This is especially saddening since it just finally began to take off. The world is on the brink of war and old ways are threatened—everyone must rethink their sense of duty and their place in the world, or they might fall to the wayside as the future arrives with deadly force.
While this first installment of the trilogy primarily serves as the backdrop for what’s to come, it’s interesting in its setup and it promises much more. Even if the next two books don’t fully deliver, Gilman’s writing is worth encountering regardless. And if you’re a wine aficionado, there are special pleasures in here for you to savor, for sure.