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REVIEW: Firelight by Kristin Callihan

Dear Ms. Callihan,

While historical romances aren’t my favored genre, I do love paranormal romances. If I pick up a historical, more often than not there’s a whiff of the paranormal in it. I remember first hearing about your debut novel several months ago and it sounded interesting enough that it stayed on my radar. As I was warned, Firelight is certainly a mix of many different genres. I’m all for genre-mixing, but I’m just not sure it worked here.

Kristen Callihan FirelightThe youngest daughter of a destitute family, Miranda Ellis was born with an unusual gift. She has the ability to start fires, and I don’t mean with matches. In fact, it is because of this firestarting ability that her family is penniless. To survive, Miranda has taken to using her pretty face (and other, ahem, assets) to steal.

That ends when Miranda is forced to marry the infamous Lord Benjamin Archer, who wears a mask to hide his disfigured face. Miranda is resigned to her fate but complications arise when Archer becomes the main suspect of a series of murders. The victims were all prior acquaintances of Archer’s and more importantly, were known to be on poor terms with him.

Despite his reputation, Miranda knows that her husband can’t be responsible. She sees the goodness in him. She embarks on a quest to discover Archer’s past in order to learn the mystery behind his mask and why he hides his face from the world. But in doing so, she attracts the attention of the real murderer and may soon become the next target.

Firelight is indeed a paranormal historical and while I think that’s an accurate subgenre label, it’s also very much a gothic romance in tone. At first glance, I thought these elements would work well together. But as I continued reading, I was strongly reminded of a conversation I once had with Jane in which we discussed why paranormal historicals often fail for readers. In a nutshell, we concluded that both paranormals and historicals require a certain amount of worldbuilding to ground the narrative for a reader. In a paranormal historical, you have to combine the paranormal worldbuilding with the historical worldbuilding. Unfortunately, you end up with one of two options: success or a confusing mess. I found Firelight to be a confusing mess.

I realize a lot of this is the result of my preferences. I know I’m particular when it comes to worldbuilding. I don’t like it when things are dropped in without any explanation whatsoever and I’m just supposed to accept it. As a reader, I’m already accepting that there are fantastical elements which, let’s be fair, is a pretty big suspension of disbelief. I need a little more grounding to avoid frustration. In this case, I’m specifically talking about Archer’s “disfigurement.” What was up with that? I was torn between rolling my eyes at the tweeness and going WTF at the random tossing in of Egyptian mythology.

This in turn brings us to what I consider the major flaw of the novel. There’s a fine balance when you draw out a mystery. It can increase tension or it can become outright annoying, thereby having the opposite effect of slowing down the narrative. While it was initially novel to speculate about Archer’s disfigurement and presumed paranormal dilemma, this soon got tiresome. And the more tiresome it got, the less engaged I became. It was very easy for me to put this book down. I sometimes forgot I was reading it and had to force myself to pick it back up. By the time we learn Archer’s secret, the revelation was so anticlimactic I found I couldn’t care less.

At its heart, this is a Beauty and the Beast story. Unfortunately, the romance left me cold. I understood why Archer loved and adored Miranda. But I never quite followed why Miranda began to reciprocate. Whether or not this romance works for a reader will depend on that reader’s tolerance for couples who lie to each other. Miranda and Archer spend the majority of the book lying to one another. Miranda doesn’t tell him about her firestarting abilities. Archer doesn’t tell her about his past, what he knows about the murders being pinned on him, or about his disfigurement. This type of storyline is one of my least favorites. They kept lying to one another and shutting each other out, so I failed to see any lowering of defenses or the emotional intimacy I like to see in romantic plots.

Overall, I found this book to be unfocused. That could simply be due to the fact that I was so irritated with the drawing out of Archer’s mystery disfigurement that I began to notice other flaws. It happens. In theory, I thought the various elements should go well together but they came off as jumbled to me: Archer’s mystery disfigurement, Miranda’s firestarting ability, the murders, Archer’s rivals and enemies – one of whom keeps flirting with Miranda and may not be entirely human, a mysterious woman who may be Archer’s ex-lover, a mysterious club that Miranda cannot track down and so on. I guess I expect a certain level of depth to any given plot element and when you have too many in a book of this length, it starts becoming a bit shallow.

I can see why some readers would enjoy this book. It has a gothic sensibility to it. It’s very reminiscent of Phantom of the Opera. For all that I found Archer’s secret to be underwhelming and perhaps a little silly, it was fairly original. I don’t say that often when it comes to paranormals. But despite all that, I’m afraid this book just didn’t work for me. C-

My regards,
Jia

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Jia is an avid reader who loves fantasy and young adult novels. She's also currently dipping her toes in the new adult genre but remains unconvinced by the prevalent need for traumatic pasts. Her favorite authors are Michelle West and Jacqueline Carey. YA authors whose works she's enjoyed include Holly Black, Laini Taylor, Ally Carter, and Megan Miranda. Jia's on a neverending quest for novels with diverse casts and multicultural settings. Feel free to email her with recommendations at [email protected]!

13 Comments

  1. JL
    Jan 31, 2012 @ 19:30:08

    Thanks for the review. I was considering this one, even though I tend to shy away from historicals, because the story sounded intriguing. But if the plot is convoluted, I doubt I would enjoy it.

  2. Darlynne
    Jan 31, 2012 @ 20:06:13

    I purchased the book this morning, prior to reading your review, and I also picked up the prequel. Ordinarily I’m really hesitant to spend even $5.99 on new-to-me authors, but sometimes, “you pays your money and you takes your chances.” I am cautiously optimistic. Thanks for the review.

  3. Jia
    Jan 31, 2012 @ 20:35:55

    @Darlynne: I hope you like it better than I did. Based on what I’ve seen, it seems like most people have enjoyed it. For whatever reason, it didn’t work out for me.

  4. Diane
    Jan 31, 2012 @ 21:54:36

    I’ve seen other reviews and the book did sound good; I’m willing to give a new author a chance and will probably pick up the book.

  5. Has
    Jan 31, 2012 @ 22:04:50

    I really loved this book because I felt the tropes were twisted and I liked the mythology which was different. I am not usually keen on pnr in historicals unless its in a fantasy like setting, but I think it worked well in Firelight. Although I agree there felt like there was chunks missing especially in the beginning and with certain characters who appeared. But def looking forward to the next book.

  6. Mandi
    Feb 01, 2012 @ 07:24:19

    I keep going back and forth with this one. A lot of people have rec’d it to me on Twitter but historical paranormals don’t always work for me. I like the points about the word building you bring up in the review…

  7. DM
    Feb 02, 2012 @ 11:08:37

    @Jane

    I am trying to get through this now. I’m about a third of the way. I don’t think it is the double-world-building of paranormal and historical that is the entire problem (although it is a problem–the story isn’t grounded in any particular time period, despite the date at the beginning, and at this point I have no sense of the paranormal rules of this world.). There is a serious lack of cause and effect to the storytelling. We’re treated to a lengthy scene of Miranda stealing jewels, that does not end in a disaster. She is not caught. There are no consequences. There is no conflict. She wants to steal. She steals. We move on to an unrelated scene between her and her father. He wants her to marry a man she’s never met. This is bizarre for Victorian London, and baffling if it is a custom in the paranormal world of the book, because we haven’t seen that world yet. She resists, but then decides she will because…? Not sure. Again, no disaster. Next scene she marries the guy. Then she goes to his house…yawn. No conflict yet. Oh, she can start fires! We learn this from her inner monologue. It’s all telling, no showing. There’s a jump to a third character’s POV, who we have no idea why we should care about. He dies. There’s some brooding POV of the hero thinking about his secret. Again, no conflict. Not sure I will make it to the finish line with this one…

  8. DM
    Feb 02, 2012 @ 11:09:36

    sorry mean to type @Jia but no edit function working today :(

  9. Jia
    Feb 02, 2012 @ 11:25:32

    @DM: The plot, so to speak, is very haphazard. The book does jump around from scene to scene and it was never fully apparent to me what was at stake.

    I wish I could say the historical grounding improves or the paranormal rules get clearly delineated, but that never really happens.

  10. Josephine
    Feb 02, 2012 @ 13:05:30

    If anyone doubts that a thoughtful, descriptive review can sell books regardless of whether the final judgment is good, bad, or indifferent, please be aware that this review, and this review alone, prompted me to spend $6 on a book I’d never heard of, by an author I’d never read.

    Jia, thanks for providing such a clear explanation of what you did and didn’t like about the book.. This is what sold me:

    …it was fairly original. I don’t say that often when it comes to paranormals.

    Yes, I am that desperate for novelty in the paranormal sub-genre. I’m halfway through and I do find the historical setting generic, but I adore the Gothic flourishes.

    Usually, heroes and heroines who withhold vital information from each other make me want to tear my hair out and scream, “Why can’t you two just be forthright and honest with each other for five minutes?” But with this book, I find the answer to that question is, “Because this is a Gothic novel.” And with this book, that is answer enough for me.

    If I were picky, I’d say answers to questions about character motivation should come from the text and not the reader’s knowledge of genre conventions. I’d say the setting could have been more detailed; the plot more compact. But I’m having too much fun to complain, so I’ll just say, thanks for the review. I do not regret the purchase, and will happily seek out other offerings from this author.

  11. AMG
    Feb 02, 2012 @ 20:11:55

    Thanks for the review. I was considering purchasing, but after reading the sample, where the hero meets the ultra feisty heroine dressed as a boy, fencing, and then is struck by her amazing red hair and green eyes. She stupidly decides to challenge him and…blah.
    Already so many cliches that I hate. The review merely cemented my decision.

  12. DM
    Feb 03, 2012 @ 15:14:40

    I just gave up and DNF’d it! I don’t know what is at stake in this book. I’m really disappointed. I wanted to like it. I love Gothics, and when I read the story on the agent’s webpage about how difficult it was to sell this book, I was really excited, figuring that it was terrific but didn’t sell because Gothics aren’t hot right now. I stopped half-way through, because I just couldn’t find a reason to keep reading. I’m going to drown my sorrows in a couple of old Eve Silver titles now…

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