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REVIEW: Heart of Flame by Janine Ashbless

And on the One-Thousand-and-Second night, Scheherazade told this story…

By day, Taqla uses her forbidden sorcery to move freely about the city of Damascus in the guise of an old sage. Her true identity known only by her faithful servant woman, Taqla is content with the comfortable, if restrictive, life that keeps her safe from the control of any man. Until she lays eyes on a handsome merchant-traveler. Suddenly her magical disguise doesn’t rest so easily on her shoulders.

When long-time widower, Rafiq, hears that the Amir’s beautiful daughter has been kidnapped by a scheming djinni—and that she will be given in marriage to her rescuer—he seeks the help of “Umar the Wise” to ensure he will be that man. Yet as he and the disguised Taqla set off, he senses that his prickly male companion is hiding something.

In a moment of dire peril, all of Taqla’s secrets are stripped bare—her fears, her sorcery and, worst of all, her love for Rafiq. Yet the princess’s life hangs in the balance, and there is no running away or turning back. Even though passion may yet betray them all…

Dear Ms Ashbless,

As the opening sentence says, this could be a story straight out of the Arabian Nights. I can imagine reclining on a divan, eating sugared dates, drinking sherbet and listening with rapt attention as a storyteller spins out the tale of Taqla and Rafiq in their quest to rescue the beautiful Ahleme, daughter of the Amir of Dimashq, from the clutches of the evil djinni Yazid. And what a tale it is with twists and turns and adventures galore. There were times when I honestly had no idea of what would come next and instances when I gnashed my teeth at whatever it was that interrupted me from reading the next page. Had I gotten off my duff and read it last year when I got the book, it would definitely have landed on my top ten list for the year.

Heart of Flame by Janine AshblessI used to read vampire books and shifter books and angel/demon books (but not zombies, seriously I don’t understand that one) but once the craze kicked in and that’s all people were writing, I got bored and irritated with yet another shifter book or emo/super alpha vampire hero. Frankly, I had basically given up reading any paranormal or fantasy book except for the Temerarie AU series. But here is a book with the lesser used djinni and djinniyah as well as being chock full of different creatures I’d never even heard of – though multiple Google searches bore out their inclusion in folk lore of the areas in which the book is set.

Horse Most Swift, Lion Most Strong, the Bag that Holds the World, the moving picture scroll offered to the Amir which lures his daughter into capture, the initial room Ahleme is kept a prisoner in which turns out to be hung in midair by a web of glass strands – there is something new in almost every chapter to at which to marvel. Taqla is a sorceress but there are definite limits to her powers and abilities – she often relies on instinct to guide her and she can be thwarted by someone who knows how to. Yazid and his sister Zubaida can conjure and whoosh something into or out of existence in the blink of an eye. The scene and image of djinn at play in a lake of molten fire is stunning and terrifying in turns. The single minded mission of an angel setting right what has been done wrong is chilling.

There are great individual scenes such as when Rafiq and Taqla in disguise flee across rooftops and through the back of stores from his enemies in Dimashq. I kept picturing the early bazaar scene from Raiders of the Lost Arc. Or the narrow escape of these two from the ghoulish Pale People or the giant fish that guards the special apple tree. In fact all through the story I kept thinking “this would make a hell of a movie.” The pacing is good with no draggy middle or drawn out end. It’s colorful, imaginative yet based on the places, beings and mythology of the place and time: the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, the nasty little seer Safan inTaysafun, the underwater desert sea, the the fruit from a particular tree. I love how this quest is gently dropped into the story without a lot of fanfare – the tree grew from an apple core that was thrown into the Tigris a very long time ago. My favorite is Senmurw, the Bird of Compassion, who is fantastic. I was actually tearing up a little at what she says to Taqla about love. She makes up for Yaghuth who is particularly awful and I approve of Taqla’s desire to bury that temple with the sands of time. The Pale People were utterly repulsive. The tale of Ardishir and his consort Adhur-Anahid made me shudder. As is her ultimate end – though she seems to have well deserved it.

We actually get two love stories for the price of one here – Taqla and Rafiq and then Yazid and Ahleme. Taqla is older and used to living on her own through her ability to disguise herself as Umar and Zahir which allows her to live without a man in her life. After she tells Rafiq the story of her childhood, he realizes why she’s chosen to avoid marriage as she’s seen firsthand that a man can destroy a woman’s life and that women have less power in this world just because of their physiology. I thought the vision Taqla had of growing old as Safan had also helped contribute to her willingness to change. For his part, Rafiq has also learned a bitter lesson about marriage. He often left his first bride to continue his merchant travels and never bothered to try to either get to know her or learn to love her. He returned to find her dead of a plague and, chastised, only then realized how little he knew her. Each of them has to learn to trust the other and be willing to share a life with another person. It takes their journeying and cooperation in achieving each of the goals to bring this about as they would never have gone beyond surface attraction otherwise. As much as they did, I came to enjoy their bickering – which becomes more playful as the story progresses – and have a vision of them taking verbal shots at each other as they grow old together. And I like that I can see the changes in them slowly taking place over the course of the story instead of BAM! all at once. Though of course neither quite realizes what’s happening at the time.

As for Yazid and Ahleme – here the contrast is between human and djinn, youthful daydreams of love and notions of protecting family honor via virginity vs age old bitterness at the subjugation of a race and determination to eliminate the possibility of future imprisonment of a djinni’s will.
Yazid begins his efforts at conquest with strength and bluster. He’s the big, bad, blue djinni who can create things out of thin air at will, who can become three times the size of a man and shout the house down. He wants what he wants and doesn’t truly care how this will affect an innocent woman. Up to now, Ahleme has been living in a silken prison of the harem in Dimashq so this new prison isn’t far from what she’s used to. She doesn’t have attendants and it takes a while for Yazid to provide her with amusements to pass her time – after he learns the hard way that humans require regular food and water to live – but she has a strong will and won’t bow down or give up her family honor without a fight. It’s not until Yazid does something for her that takes personal effort vs just snapping his fingers that she begins to soften. He listened to her and she realizes she can’t think of a time before when a man has done that. Yazid also doesn’t overpower her when he easily could have. He then tries to turn her innocence against her as he physically woos her. Still she hangs on until she sees the sacrifice he’s willing to make to keep her safe before giving in.

I finished reading with a couple of questions and inconsistencies that popped out at me. The Amir of Dimashq alternately has only one child – Ahleme – or more than one (in the scene where she’s kidnapped at the audience she’s mentioned as the Amir’s eldest daughter and the Amir is said to like to spend time with his children). The Bag that Holds the World seems to be able to hold anything and mention is made of Taqla pulling food out of it during their journey but when they’re forced to spend the night on one of the marsh islands, they have to go hungry because as desert land dwellers they don’t know how to fish. One of the very minor characters mentions the Holy Qur’an yet several times characters drink or are offered wine. But these aren’t things which are deal breakers and none of them impaired my enjoyment of the book.

Is there going to be a sequel? What happens to Ahleme and Yazid? Does Taqla figure out how to control Zubaida or will she get free of the imprisoning spell? Will Taqla and Rafiq travel together and have more adventures? I love it when I finish a book and want more. A-

~Jayne

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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.

25 Comments

  1. charlotte stein
    Apr 09, 2012 @ 07:01:17

    How lovely to come here and find a fantastic review of one of my favourite authors! I’ve loved Janine Ashbless’ work for years, but she seems to rarely get the acclaim she so richly deserves. You loved all the things I did and always do in her work – the rich detail, the complex relationships, the astounding knowledge of mythology and history. I almost relived the story reading your review!

    Fantastic commentary on a fantastic book.

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  2. Jayne
    Apr 09, 2012 @ 07:17:38

    @charlotte stein: The use of mythology here is topnotch and added so much to the richness of the story.

    Is the hotness level of this book what’s usual from Ashbless? I’m not much into erotic romance and saw that term used for her books which makes me hesitate to try more.

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  3. Dabney
    Apr 09, 2012 @ 07:48:19

    I, like you, pretty much only read YA fantasy. Your review made me click on over to Amazon and download this book. It sounds wonderful. I’m wondering if you’ve read The Chanters of Tremaris trilogy by Kate Constable. It’s phenomenal.

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  4. Charlotte Stein
    Apr 09, 2012 @ 07:50:27

    I’m seriously in awe of her ability to absorb and use that much myth, etc, without it bogging down the story.

    And I’d say her stories are usually hotter – she wrote for Black Lace, which was really more erotica than erotic romance. But all of her books have the same richness and attention to pace, character, etc. She wrote another you might like – The King’s Viper – for Ellora’s Cave. I’d say it’s more of a fantasy than just an erotic book. Though if you can take a little more erotic content, Burning Bright and Divine Torment are also great.

    She’s just a wonderful writer.

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  5. Jayne
    Apr 09, 2012 @ 08:20:27

    @Charlotte Stein: Hmmm, “The King’s Viper” sounds interesting. Thanks for the rec.

    ReplyReply

  6. Patricia Eimer
    Apr 09, 2012 @ 08:23:49

    This sounds really great and very different. I love Middle Eastern mythology so I hurried on over to amazon to download this book. Thanks for the recommend.

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  7. Jayne
    Apr 09, 2012 @ 08:33:17

    @Dabney: No, I haven’t read any of those books. I’ve actually sort of shifted away from reading many YA books lately because even though I’ve only read a few, the tropes and short hand descriptions and character types are obvious.

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  8. Kat Black
    Apr 09, 2012 @ 08:40:49

    Great review, Jayne. I think you might just have leap-frogged Heart of Flame up my towering TBR pile! I’m a huge fan of Janine’s work and would second Charlotte’s recommendation for The King’s Viper.

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  9. maria
    Apr 09, 2012 @ 08:53:49

    I just bought this based on this review and I am loving it. I don’t want to put it down, but I have things to accomplish today. Good thing I have a flight tomorrow. :D I am enjoying the exotic setting and the rich details. It is such a refreshing change from the usual. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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  10. Jayne
    Apr 09, 2012 @ 09:05:00

    @maria: Aaarrgh, I hate it when “things to accomplish” gets in the way of a good book. Hope you enjoy it on your flight tomorrow.

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  11. DS
    Apr 09, 2012 @ 09:06:11

    I’m thinking about giving this one a spin.

    Jayne, have you ever read any of Richard Burton’s (unexpurgated) translations of the tales for 1001 Nights? My library had a set– multiple volumes– and boy did this open my eyes to some amazing things. There was a footnote about the longest penis known — I guess to Victorian gentlemen explorers– that I have not forgot. I seem to remember wine drinking in several of the stories though.

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  12. Samantha
    Apr 09, 2012 @ 09:25:56

    This sounds fantastic and since I’m facing a long plane ride in a couple days, think I’ll run and grab it for the trip.

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  13. Christine M.
    Apr 09, 2012 @ 09:41:26

    It sounds absolutely fantastic. I’m sold.

    ReplyReply

  14. Dabney
    Apr 09, 2012 @ 10:13:05

    @Jayne: These are older and are pretty unique. The author is an Aussie.

    ReplyReply

  15. Jayne
    Apr 09, 2012 @ 10:49:44

    @DS: Nope, I’ve never read any of Burton’s translations though I’m sure they’re hotter than what we’re used to.

    ReplyReply

  16. Tell Us What You Want In Comments - Fiction Vixen Book Reviews
    Apr 09, 2012 @ 14:35:18

    [...] commenter keeping the comments sorted by time. Examples of the @reply comments can be found at Dear Author and The Book [...]

  17. Laura Florand
    Apr 09, 2012 @ 15:58:17

    An A- from you? That’s rare. This sounds so rich and inviting. I have to try it.

    I’m still recommending Martha Wells. :) But it’s more fantasy with always an excellent romantic thread (more like Barbara Hambly in the fantasy: romance proportion, but very different, very vivid world-building).

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  18. Keishon
    Apr 09, 2012 @ 18:02:57

    I’m like Laura Florand, an A? from you? I must give this book a look. Thanks for the review.

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  19. maria
    Apr 09, 2012 @ 18:12:16

    Devoured the whole thing despite things to accomplish. Fabulous.

    ReplyReply

  20. Kate Pearce
    Apr 09, 2012 @ 19:03:00

    She’s a great writer. I loved all her Black Lace titles and was delighted to see her cross the water and publish over here.

    ReplyReply

  21. Jayne
    Apr 10, 2012 @ 03:48:36

    @Laura Florand: Never fear, I haven’t forgotten Martha Wells and have actually bought and downloaded a couple of the books you’ve recommended.

    ReplyReply

  22. Jayne
    Apr 10, 2012 @ 03:50:17

    @maria: Wow, you must have been glued to it! I’m so glad you enjoyed it.

    ReplyReply

  23. Jayne
    Apr 10, 2012 @ 03:51:46

    @Keishon: I know, I know – I’m grading very few books above a B+ these days so I’m really mad at myself for not reading this last year when it could have made my Top Ten list.

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  24. Laura Florand
    Apr 10, 2012 @ 06:11:00

    I’m halfway through this and loving it. She evokes her world/worlds (the sequential quest leads to so many different settings) so well. And I love the way she makes the characters’ feelings hit us (“disappointment gumming up her insides”). Taqla and Rafiq are great characters. Thanks for the recommendation!

    I’m just harassing you about the Martha Wells. :) I’m a big fan of hers.

    ReplyReply

  25. Angela
    Apr 10, 2012 @ 07:02:11

    It’s so difficult waiting for payday to buy this book. I’m really excited to read it!

    ReplyReply

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