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REVIEW: The Flame and the Shadow by Denise Rossetti

Dear Ms. Rossetti,

I picked up this book on the strength of a cover quote from Shana Abe and the vague idea that said quote meant that The Flame and the Shadow would bear some resemblance to Abe’s Drakon series, which I’m quite fond of. About one-third of the way through, I was ruing my decision – remembering that cover quotes from authors one enjoys are no guarantee that one will actually like the recommended book. It wasn’t that I actually didn’t like the book so far, mind you – I was just having some definite issues with it at that point in the story, and felt that perhaps it wasn’t for me.

First, the story: Cenda lives in an enclave of sorcerers and sorceresses (called Pures or Purists in this story) on a rather grubby little planet called Sybaris. Cenda is 41 years old, tall, thin and awkward, and consumed with grief over the recent death of her young daughter, Elke. Elke’s death has left Cenda with a sort of gift: she is now a Fire Witch, the only known one in the worlds these characters inhabit. The ability first manifests itself in an ability to withstand fire; small salamanders made of fire scuttle across her body and nestle themselves in her hair (the salamanders were a charming, eccentric feature throughout the story). As the plot progresses, Cenda’s powers grow and she learns to harness her abilities, which include being able to turn into a living flame and shoot fireballs at potential enemies.

Grayson of Concordia, also known as the Duke of Ombra (for reasons that were never quite clear to me; he’s not really a duke), is a harpist with the Unearthly Opera Company, a group of traveling players that roam from planet to planet performing at various venues. Grayson has a rather unique problem, one that drives him to agree to kidnap the Fire Witch: his shadow. Gray’s shadow is a sort of silent, faceless separate entity, corporeal and capable of movement independent of Gray’s – but not so independent that Gray can get rid of the shadow, whom he calls Shad. Shad has been with Gray forever, but was rather like a secret semi-invisible friend when they were children – Gray loved Shad and they were inseparable (literally). It is only when the intensely religious people of Gray’s home planet (they pray to a god they call "Judger God"; much less accessible and cheery than "Kitten God" or "Best Friend God", I would imagine) discovered Shad and label him an "abomination" that the young Gray renounced his friend, only to discover that Shad won’t – can’t – leave him. Gray flees home at 14, basically running for his life, and immediately falls into the hands of an abuser.

So, we have two very, very damaged people coming together, one of whom is going to betray the other. I am usually totally up for angst, but I was actually a bit depressed by all that Gray and Cenda had suffered. On the one hand, that indicates that the story came alive for me – the characters and their pain felt real. On the other hand, it made this a somewhat downbeat read at times.

As the story progressed, there developed aspects that I really liked and ones that I really disliked. I am not a science fiction fan. All of the "world-building" details – the plants and such with odd names – I tend to find those off-putting and even a bit self-conscious when I’m reading. The chief villain is the Technomage Primus of Sybaris; she wants Cenda for her powers, even though her devotion is to science and she disdains magic (she uses "science" as an epithet the way some people say "God", as in "science help us!", a detail I found annoying and unrealistic). The whole "science=bad" aspect seemed kind of heavy-handed to me.

What I came to like, more and more as the story progressed, was the genuine and complex emotions between Gray, Shad and Cenda. This will not be a "romance" for everyone – Shad’s presence, in addition to being just plain weird, adds both a definite ménage a trois aspect and a more subtle homoerotic aspect (which in itself had a slightly incestuous vibe, to make the whole thing even weirder) to the story. But ultimately, I found the relationship between Gray and Shad, and the one between Cenda and Shad, really quite poignant. The relationship between Gray and Cenda is perhaps inevitably more conventional; I wasn’t crazy about the man-slut/innocent heroine pairing (though Cenda had borne a child, it did not seem like she’d gotten around at all prior to her experience with Elke’s father, and she had tiresomely stereotypical issues with own femininity and attractiveness). Gray’s family background was rendered in a way that made him a sympathetic character even when he was behaving villainously. Curiously, Cenda’s history was a lot sketchier – it appeared that she had been raised in the magicians’ enclave, but if there was any mention of her parents, I missed it. About all we know about her past besides her one brief and unsatisfying romance and the birth and death of her daughter is that she was a bit of a bust as a witch before she gained her fire witch powers. I wouldn’t have minded Cenda’s character being filled out with a few more dimensions.

This book appears to be the first in a series, and despite my lack of enthusiasm for the sci-fi elements, I think I will pick up the next book in the series. I would imagine those readers who do like sci-fi, like emotional stories, and don’t mind unconventional elements in their romances might like this book even better than I did. I will give it a B.

Jennie

This book can be purchased in trade paperback from Amazon or Powells or ebook format.

has been an avid if often frustrated romance reader for the past 15 years. In that time she's read a lot of good romances, a few great ones, and, unfortunately, a whole lot of dreck. Many of her favorite authors (Ivory, Kinsale, Gaffney, Williamson, Ibbotson) have moved onto other genres or produce new books only rarely, so she's had to expand her horizons a bit. Newer authors she enjoys include Julie Ann Long, Megan Hart and J.R. Ward, and she eagerly anticipates each new Sookie Stackhouse novel. Strong prose and characterization go a long way with her, though if they are combined with an unusual plot or setting, all the better. When she's not reading romance she can usually be found reading historical non-fiction.

8 Comments

  1. Maura
    Dec 12, 2008 @ 15:35:47

    You know, this sounds really interesting to me. I may pick this one up.

  2. MaryK
    Dec 12, 2008 @ 16:07:43

    I’m glad to see a review of this book. Amazon has been “suggesting” it to me for a while now, and I’ve liked some of the writing on the author’s website. What’s with all the trade paperbacks, though? I just can’t afford them.

  3. Gennita Low
    Dec 12, 2008 @ 17:57:21

    41 year-old heroine? I’m so there! What’s the heat factor in the romance?

  4. Jennie
    Dec 12, 2008 @ 18:09:37

    Thanks for asking, Gennita – I had meant to address the sensuality of the book in my review but forgot. It may actually classified as an erotic romance – I’m not sure. But it’s definitely hot, and I found the love scenes rather effective. As I touched on in the review, there are menage elements as well as some homoerotic elements to the love scenes. Even if I hadn’t ended up liking this book as well as I did, I would have said that Rossetti can definitely write a sex scene!

  5. GrowlyCub
    Dec 12, 2008 @ 19:37:53

    I really like the cover. It’s beautiful.

    My first thought before I read the review was that it and the title remind me of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover books.

    The story sounds interesting, too! :)

    ETA: Not interesting enough to shell out 13 bucks for an e-book, though. That pricing is just ridiculous, sorry!

  6. Jennie
    Dec 13, 2008 @ 00:58:04

    My first thought before I read the review was that it and the title remind me of Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover books.

    I keep wanting to call it “The Flame and the Flower”, my first (and last) Kathleen Woodiwiss book. Not a comparison that I’d want if I were the author, though I know that book has its fans!

  7. JC
    Dec 13, 2008 @ 15:40:10

    I really enjoyed the book. While it’s not Denise’s strongest story, I think she was trying to do some very interesting things, and I’d be fascinated to see where it goes. I love Denise’s writing.

  8. Denise Rossetti
    Dec 13, 2008 @ 16:27:37

    Thank you for reading, Jennie, and for the thoughtful review. Much appreciated.

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