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GUEST REVIEW: Element of Fire by Martha Wells

Dear Martha,

elementcover6×9.jpgWhen Jayne asked me if I would be willing to review one of my favorite books for Dear Author, the trick was choosing which one of yours to review. You consistently create rich, unique worlds, complex heroines and heroes who are both real and extraordinary, and your books are impossible to put down. These are fantasy novels, but in every book of yours there is a strong and often discreet thread of romance that always leaves me longing for more of this couple. I entirely and completely love Maskelle in Wheel of the Infinite, for example-‘the somewhat older, sometimes wiser heroine, who should not, under any terms, be messed with by the slightest little fraction, even if you are a god. And her relationship with Rian is perfect.

But in the end, I chose the first book I ever read by you and the first book you ever wrote, Element of Fire. The complete revised edition of this book is available online here, but my review refers to my original, unrevised copy. Sorry. Much as I love the new cover on the revised edition, try to pry my from my original old paperback and you’ll find my clutching at it frantically and turning nearly as dangerous as your main characters.

Element of Fire introduces us to Ile-Rien, an Elizabethan world full of swords, sorcery, and far too full of Faerie and intricate politics for any of the characters’ good. The world is vivid and real with not a single two-dimensional character or facile and illogical use of magic or mayhem in sight.

We start in medias res, with a grappling hook skittering across rain-slick stone, and tension is high:

"He’s coming," Gideon Townsend, Thomas’s lieutenant, said as he made his way toward them out of the heavy shadows. Reaching them he glanced up at the full moon, stark white against the backdrop of wind-driven rain clouds, and muttered, "Not the best night for this work."-
Thomas personally couldn’t think of a good time to forcibly invade a foreign sorcerer’s house. "The point of it is to go and be killed where you’re told," he said. "Is everyone in position?"

Thomas Boniface is captain of the Queen’s Guard, and I am in love with him. He is hot. I don’t know how you do it. You never tell us so, as most authors do. You never mention anything about his physical attractiveness at all really-‘just a few references to his younger days. But if this book needed to be carried, he could carry it with his charisma alone. What makes the book that much better is that he doesn’t have to carry it. Each separate element–the plot, the world, and each well-drawn character-‘would by itself make it a compelling read.

element-of-fire.jpgThomas Boniface is in a tricky situation. He is Captain of the Queen’s Guard, a position of great power and danger, but the Queen (Ravenna) is now a Dowager Queen and her son is the legal ruler. But the son is ineffectual and worse, not to mention completely under the control of his manipulative lover/advisor Denzil, who wants Thomas Boniface dead.

Enter Kade Carrion, the illegitimate stepchild, a superb character. The old king Fulstan her father was Ravenna’s husband, and while Ravenna was off to war this abusive man left his mark on both his children. He also had some interesting encounters: Kade’s mother is the Queen of Air and Darkness, not exactly an easy woman to be indifferently raised by:

"And how is your dear mother, child?"
Ravenna’s expression was as polite as a judge passing sentence; Kade looked ironic and amused. "She’s in Hell."
"Wishful thinking, surely."
"Oh, no, she really is. We saw her go. She lost a wager."

That makes Kade the official Queen of Air and Darkness, but she has little idea how to fulfill the role and less desire to try. She is also an enemy of the crown, guilty of sending many cursed and murderous gifts, even though she claims now to have a different and less harmful agenda.

You put Thomas Boniface and Kade Carrion together, and then you add to the mix disaster, danger, the Unseelie Court, and one of the world’s greatest sorcerers tortured into an inexorable determination to revenge. And Thomas Boniface and Kade Carrion find themselves fighting side-by-side.

Grit, glamour, guts, glory, grandeur, and delicate, subtle moments of unexpected trust, great dialogue, and deliciously revelations.

It’s been a delight to have an excuse to re-read this book for this review. How often do you find yourself staying up late to keep reading a book the nth time you’ve read it? But I did. Kudos to you, Ms. Wells, and please keep them coming. As for me, my appetite for great adventure, high romance, great characters, and great dialogue is whetted, and I’m off to re-read Wheel of the Infinite now.

Laura Florand


Do you have a favorite book? Would you like to share that with Dear Author? Send your review to jane at Every Monday we share books that we love to inspire more reading.

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.


  1. DS
    Feb 04, 2008 @ 05:48:18

    I adore this book– revised and unrevised. I have all of Martha Wells’ books but this one and Wheel of the Infinite are my favorites. According to her live journal she has a new novel almost finished. I am waiting anxiously.

    Yay, edit feature back. Now I don’t have to sound so stupid if I save too soon.

  2. Jayne
    Feb 04, 2008 @ 06:06:42

    When Jane and I first read Laura’s review, our immediate response was a raised eyebrow “Hmmmmm!” Both of us plan to check these books out at some point…if we can ever dig out from under our TBR mountains. [G]

  3. (Jān)
    Feb 04, 2008 @ 06:22:50

    Whenever people ask me for recommendations I always forget Wells for some reason, and I shouldn’t. This one is excellent, though I liked the sequel better (I seem to recall that one being up for a Nebula back when they still meant something). City of Bones was amazing too. There are things from that book I remember vividly to this day (it’s been about ten years since I read it). And Thorns, a quiet little story from Realms of Fantasy (I had the wrong source there, sorry…), blew me away. Her books always reminded me of Paula Volsky’s later ones. Fabulous world building, memorable characters that just touch you, sometimes more deeply than is comfortable, and scenes you’ll never forget.

  4. Jia
    Feb 04, 2008 @ 07:43:56

    I’ve heard many good things about Wells but I’ve never picked up her books. This sounds like a good place to start.

    Of course, there is the ever-present TBR mountain to contend with. Sigh.

  5. Nicole
    Feb 04, 2008 @ 08:40:09

    I grabbed the revised copy ebook awhile back, but haven’t read it. I really should as it does look good.

  6. Lisa
    Feb 04, 2008 @ 10:09:02

    I loved Wells’ THE DEATH OF THE NECROMANCER, which is set in Ile-Rien, but I was unsure how it fit into the other books and what book to read next in the series. I think I’ll start with ELEMENT OF FIRE.

  7. Thera
    Feb 04, 2008 @ 11:48:26


  8. Thera
    Feb 04, 2008 @ 11:50:30

    NECROMANCER is not a direct sequel to ELEMENT, but set in the same world about 200 years later (Victorian as opposed to Cavalier). THE FALL OF ILL-REIN trilogy is a sequel to NECROMANCER, set in a 1920’s or 30’s time period and features Nicholas’ daughter as the main character. Quite good story, with some surprises you don’t expect.

  9. Ita
    Feb 04, 2008 @ 12:16:39

    Oooh, how cool to see one of my most favorite authors being reviewed. (I’m here cause she blogged about it). Wells is on my Must-Buy-Immediately-in-HB list of authors.

    As for the romance in her books, they are subdued but much more intense because of that. As Laura mentioned, she doesn’t tell you exactly what her characters look like or how smart or honorable they are. The actions speak for themselves. She’s a “show”, not a “tell” author.

    Wells also delicately balances deep emotion with humor. She is truly excellent at funny sarcastic dialogue.

    It is hard to pick a favorite, but I’d have to say her Wizards of Air trilogy has a slight edge for me. What makes it special is the deep relationship between the heroes as well as the the heroine and the primary hero. Wells does characterization like no other. I subscribed to Black Gate Magazine just so I could see more of those characters.

  10. Jane
    Feb 04, 2008 @ 13:06:23

    Laura makes a compelling case for this book. Maybe Jayne and I need to carve out a few days next month and do a “dueling revew”. This sounds like a classic in the way that Emma Bulls’ War for the Oaks is classic.

  11. Keishon
    Feb 04, 2008 @ 13:12:26

    This does sound really good and someone mentioned ebook? Great!

  12. Devon
    Feb 04, 2008 @ 13:20:09

    I’ve never heard of this author before. Thanks for the review, it sounds like something I would like.

  13. Jayne
    Feb 04, 2008 @ 13:33:41

    Not only an ebook but a FREE ebook. And in almost every format known to man. Click on the link in the review that states “The complete revised edition of this book is available online here.” You can’t get any better than that!

  14. Victoria Janssen
    Feb 04, 2008 @ 15:01:02

    DEFINITELY Laura’s right; I think many romance readers would love Martha Wells’ work. My favorites are THE ELEMENT OF FIRE and CITY OF BONES, but they all have their points–WHEEL OF THE INFINTE, for example, has an awesome protagonist who’s older than the usual fantasy heroine, and a pretty cool romance, too.

  15. Laura Florand
    Feb 04, 2008 @ 15:08:34

    Yikes, I’m spotting typos as I read. Yet more proof that you should never proofread & hit send with a toddler tugging on you for attention.

    Thanks for giving me the chance to review one of my favorite authors! It was hard to pick a favorite of hers, and I agree with all the other recommendations others have mentioned of her books. They are all so good.

  16. Ann Aguirre
    Feb 04, 2008 @ 17:49:09

    I snagged this one in Mobi format. I’ll enjoy checking this out. Thanks for the intriguing review!

  17. Elizabeth Naylor
    Feb 04, 2008 @ 23:16:36

    For me, all of her books are keepers and usually end up being re-read several times a year. I am glad to see that her books are available as ebooks and will add those to my growing e-library, despite the DRM. I sent copies of her books to my fiance, now husband, and got him hooked as well.

    Wheel of the Infinite is my favorite if I want a stand-alone, quick immersion into one of Wells’ worlds. The Ile-Rien books(Element of Fire, Death of a Necromancer, and the fall of Ile-Rien trilogy) are great if you have more time to devote. I am excited about the possibility of a new book as mentioned on her blog and can hardly wait until it’s out.

  18. Beth
    Feb 05, 2008 @ 09:30:56

    I love everything by this author. My library carries them, the eLibrary for New York City has the fall of Ile-Rien ebooks for check out, and they make great gifts (but there is no boxed set, you just have to order them).

  19. peter m.
    Mar 01, 2008 @ 12:20:47

    Element is further cemented in my pantheon of favorite modern, adult fantasy with every read, and from the sound of it my original copy is as well-read as Laura’s.

    As impressive as Martha’s compelling characterizations are, they are possibly surpassed by her clever world-building. How many authors create a beautifully rendered Elizabethan environment for their first novel – complete with an accompanying well-defined (yet largely unseen) faerie realm – only to fast forward the entire world to turn-of-the-century technology in a sequel (Necromancer) with nary a backwards glance? And, furthermore, then advance again to radios, pre-WWII tall ships, and zeppelins in her subsequent trilogy?

    If you love fully-realized fantastical worlds and characters you will love this novel.

  20. Crushing Krisis › The Element of Fire
    Mar 01, 2008 @ 12:46:49

    […] Dear Author highlights Martha Wells’ The Element of Fire, my favorite modern fantasy book not written by Steven Brust. […]

  21. maya
    Mar 24, 2008 @ 18:10:14

    I read the first few chapters, but then I reached a part that really put me off and dumped the whole thing. Why is it that authors just HAVE to make the homosexual relationship as harmful, manipulative and so on? Martha, you need to work on your homophobia.

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