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REVIEW:  The Fire Seer by Amy Raby

REVIEW: The Fire Seer by Amy Raby

Dear Ms. Raby,

I admit, the beautiful cover was one of the things that attracted me to your new, self-published fantasy-romance-mystery, The Fire Seer. The book is the first in a new series of novels featuring the same two sleuths, Taya and Mandir, whose relationship very gradually shifts from a reluctant partnership to a working relationship to a tentative romance.

The-Fire-Seer-2On your site, you describe the book as set “in a fantasy re-imagination of the Indus Valley Civilization, which was contemporary to ancient Egypt and Sumer.” In an Author’s Note at the end of the book, you state:

I used the historical information, sketchy as it was, only as a jumping-off point for world creation. In no way should this novel be considered historically accurate, even leaving out the obvious fantasy elements.

Although I was disappointed (but not surprised) to learn that, I appreciate your candor. The Fire Seer sent me to Wikipedia to learn a little about the real Indus Valley Civilization, which was remarkably advanced for its time. It saddens me that I was never taught about it in school since there is much to admire about it, including its relative egalitarianism.

The world you have created in The Fire Seer, however, is a fantastical society comprised of three castes: farmers, merchants and the ruling class. There is also a fourth group that exists outside this caste system, an organization of magic users called the Coalition.

The Coalition isn’t always just; its people aren’t allowed to use their magical abilities to benefit those who can’t afford to tithe generously to the group. But it does provide the only legal way to practice magic, as well as the only way out of the caste system, and for women, the freedom to take a lover without marrying.

Taya isu Ikkarum is the fire seer the title refers to, a member of the Coalition with an unusually strong gift for controlling fire. Taya arrives in the city of Hrappa to see the magistrate as the book opens. Her task in Hrappa is to catch a “jackal” – the term for a user of illicit magic – who has committed three murders, including that of the magistrate’s own son.

Taya is also about to meet the quradum — magic-using warrior — who will serve as her protector and partner during the investigation. To Taya’s great shock, the quradum turns out to be someone she already knows—Mandir isu Sarrum, whom she met nine years ago, and who trained with her at Mohenjo Temple when they were both teens.

During their years at Mohenjo, Mandir’s initial kindness toward Taya quickly turned to vicious bullying that went on for years. Thanks to Mandir and his egging on of others, Taya was friendless and alone, and his torment of her only came to an end after she almost died and he was sent away to serve out a Year of Penance.

Now Taya has no interest whatsoever in giving Mandir the trust necessary for a successful professional partnership, or allowing him close enough to protect her, as the Coalition dictates. Mandir may claim he is genuinely remorseful, but how can she believe anything he says?

But Taya and Mandir’s investigation of the three deaths puts Taya in danger—and not from Mandir. A vision reveals the involvement of two young women in the crime, but neither can be found. A once-prosperous banana farmer to whom Taya is attracted turns threatening when Taya refuses to heal his blighted banana plants (something the Coalition could execute her for). And when Taya attempts to call a vision of one of the murders, she is nearly drowned through the illicit magic of the “jackal.”

Can Taya trust Mandir to protect her life, when he once put it in jeopardy? Is Mandir genuine in his regret and remorse for past deeds? Will the two catch the killer, and after the events of the last nine years, is it possible for them to find friendship, and perhaps even love?

Taya was a lovely heroine, strong and resilient, and although she had been hurt by Mandir’s actions when they were teens, she did not allow that to color the way she saw most human beings, nor was her self-confidence damaged beyond repair.

Taya had an innate sense of justice and wished she could heal the farmers’ blighted plants even though the Coalition’s rules forbade it and the penalty for doing so without the Coalition’s permission was execution. As this was Taya’s initial assignment as a Coalition representative, it was the first time she experienced these injustices and saw how angry they made others, and it clearly got to her.

In addition to the theme of justice, I liked the way The Fire Seer explores the theme of trust. I found it interesting that although the central romantic conflict is that Taya feels she cannot trust Mandir, Taya actually has the more trusting personality of the two. It is Mandir who is a distrustful person, while Taya is only distrusting where Mandir is concerned—she has learned a bitter lesson there.

The novel interleaves flashbacks that take place in Mohenjo Temple with the present day storyline set in Hrappa. In the flashbacks, we see how Taya arrived in Mohenjo at age fourteen as the only farmer caste student and how Mandir, the son of a prince, set a tone for the cruel way she was treated by her fellow pupils.

Through Mandir’s viewpoint we learn that in his twisted way, Mandir tried to root out an unwelcome attraction to Taya. Mandir was hiding his own bastardy, the fact that his mother was farmer caste and his father ruling caste, and therefore his very existence was a taboo. By egging on other students to bully Taya, as his father had bullied him and his siblings, Mandir tried and failed to make himself feel better.

Mandir’s characterization took me by surprise because the heroes in your Hearts and Thrones series have gentler and more respectful personalities. (One of my favorite things about Assassin’s Gambit was that the heroine was the assassin/bodyguard of the title, and the hero was not the brawn of their partnership).

I appreciated that in The Fire Seer the bullying issue and Mandir’s redemption were treated in a matter of fact manner and not milked for drama and angst. Also, that it was not Taya who changed Mandir, but Mandir who brought about his own gradual improvement. The paragraphs quoted below which help the reader understand Mandir’s evolution come about halfway through the book, so I’ve hidden them:

Spoiler: Show

It was during his Year of Penance that he’d begun to understand that there was another way to relate to people, one that was more satisfying, and also more difficult, at least for him. The unfortunate truth was that the methods of domination and intimidation he’d used at Mohenjo worked. He had been at the top of the social ladder. And yet for all his success, he had not been happy. His heart had never been quiet, and he’d lived in constant fear of losing his status to a backstabbing rival.

During his Year of of Penance, he’d come to learn why he was so unhappy. It was not enough to be feared by those around him. He wanted to connect with someone on a deeper level. He wanted to be loved. And to win love, he had to treat people with kindness and respect. He understood that now.

Still, these new concepts lay on him like ill-fitting clothes. His intentions might be good, but he lacked the skills. He was like a schoolboy again with Taya, awkward and fumbling. During times of frustration, he lapsed into his old ways, but at least Taya challenged him on those occasions, so that he knew when he was being a zebu’s ass. In that sense, he desperately needed her.

It is evident that Taya and Mandir’s personalities complement each other well and that had it not been for Mandir’s actions back in Mohenjo, they might have made a great couple. I was very grateful, though, that Taya was so slow to start trusting Mandir again despite admitting to herself that he was physically attractive.

The slow and gradual evolution of the relationship from a very reluctant cooperation to tentative partnership to a budding romance was necessary and I was so glad it wasn’t fast-tracked, but toward the end of the book, things did start to move a bit quickly for me. The one and only sex scene comes very close to the end, but given that more books about Mandir and Taya are planned, I would have preferred that this aspect of their relationship be postponed until book two or three.

As for the other aspects of the book, I thought the mystery was creative—indeed I can see why the novel also won the Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery/Suspense in 2012, when it was still an unpublished manuscript. It had enough red herrings to keep me guessing until the identity of the killer was revealed.

I had more mixed feelings about the fantasy aspect. I liked the religion and thought the integration of its origin myth into the characters’ backgrounds made for interesting reading but was a bit hard to suspend disbelief in. Some aspects of the world, like the clay buildings and tablets, had a historical feel, while others, like having an organization called the Coalition, had a more contemporary feel, and these did not always merge well.

I also have reservations about borrowing from such a little known culture while introducing elements from other cultures and periods into the book. It’s problematic in my eyes.

Even so, I liked the thoughtful tone of the romance itself, and the mystery also absorbed me. And though the world wasn’t historically accurate, I enjoyed the time I spent there. C+/B- for The Fire Seer.



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JOINT REVIEW: Moth and Spark by Anne Leonard

JOINT REVIEW: Moth and Spark by Anne Leonard

moth and sparkJanine: When we got the review request for Moth and Spark, Anne Leonard’s debut romantic fantasy, Kaetrin and I were both intrigued by the blurb, so we decided to review it together.

Moth and Spark takes place on a continent where political tensions are on the rise. The hero of the novel is Prince Corin of Caithen, a small country with more powerful neighbors.

As the book begins Corin, the king’s heir, rides with a small group of military men through the Caithenian countryside. Corin is in a common soldier’s clothing and shouldn’t be recognized, but a dragon and its Mycenean rider stop him, and through the use of dragon power, force him to drink something.

The rider tells Corin that the dragons have chosen him to free them from their bondage to Hadon, the Emperor of Mycene. Dragon power will be on loan Corin until that goal is met, but Corin will not remember the encounter until his transformation is complete. The rider’s last words are a warning to Corin not to shirk this task; the dragons will be watching him.

We are also briefly introduced to Tam, the heroine, in the prologue, through a foreboding dream she has of the dragons’ old home ground, the Dragon Valleys in northern Caithen. The Dragon Valleys are now abandoned.

Long ago, the dragons lived free in Caithen, but the Myceneans found a way to enslave them and brought them north to Mycene. With the dragons’ powers at its disposal, Mycene turned into the empire it is today.

For years now Caithen has been a vassal kingdom to Mycene, and Corin and his father King Aram have sworn fealty to Hadon, so even if Corin remembered the dragons’ mission for him, it would be no simple thing for him to break his oath and free the dragons against Hadon’s wishes.

But Corin doesn’t remember it, and he has other concerns. On their journey through Caithen, he and his men observe the country people making signs to ward off evil, and then they are attacked by a band of warriors.

The attackers bear guns – “fire sticks” – which could only have come from technologically advanced Sarium to the east. Tyrekh, Sarium’s ruler, is hungry for land and power, and has long wanted to conquer Caithen.

Upon arrival at the palace in the capital city of Caithenor, Corin tries to report to his father about all that he saw. He is able to impart some things, but other words die on his tongue. For no reason he can explain, he is unable to speak them. His memories of the trip soon begin to dull.

Meanwhile, Tam Warin has been brought to the court of Caithenor by her sister-in-law, Cina, in order to catch a husband. Tam is of the middle classes but she has a chance at marrying a minor nobleman due to her father’s success as an exceptional healer and her brother’s fortunate marriage to Cina, whose father is a nobleman.

Cina wants Tam to make a good marriage, so she warns her to be very careful of the court’s machinations, and not to set a foot wrong. Tam’s exceptional beauty means men will try to seduce her, but if Tam is to marry well, she must not succumb.

But making an advantageous marriage isn’t nearly as important to Tam herself. She is fascinated by her new surroundings and one night while in her rooms, she observes a clandestine meeting between two unidentified men and sees a young woman, Alina, throw something across the courtyard to one of them.  Tam is careful to make sure they don’t notice her.

When lackluster weather keeps her from accompanying Cina on a shopping expedition, Tam explores the palace. Her tour of it comes to an untimely halt when a courtier named Cade dies in front of her. Before his death, Tam sees moths pouring out of his mouth, but the guard present does not see them.

Cade, delirious and mistaking Tam for another woman, accuses her of giving something to another man. Tam doesn’t know who, but she wonders if Cade’s accusation could have something to do with the secret meeting she witnessed.

Tam keeps the vision of the moths to herself, and tells only one person—the palace physician—of her suspicion that Cade died of a poison called blood-dust.

When the doctor conveys this news to the king, Aram and Corin realize it is likely, given the poison’s origins, that Tyrekh of Sarium is behind Cade’s murder, and that it may be a warning to them. It is Hadon’s role to protect Caithen from a Sarian attack, but can the Mycenean Emperor be trusted to do so?

Soon after this, Corin encounters Tam at the palace library. Tam doesn’t think to censor herself, and she chides Corin for dropping secret documents in her presence. A charmed Corin asks her to meet him for dinner the following day. Tam agrees.

A powerful attraction develops between the two, and Tam asks Corin to keep their new relationship secret.  Corin obliges because once it is known he is courting her, the others at the palace will either try to use Tam to their own benefit, or target her with jealousy and rancor.

Corin cannot marry a commoner, even one as well-connected as Tam. His marriage needs to be a strategic one, to consolidate power rather than please his heart. If Tam becomes Corin’s mistress, her reputation may be damaged.

But Corin and Tam are fast falling for each other, and as the dragons’ pull over Corin grows, it becomes clear that Tam understands it better than another woman could. Then too, all signs point to an approaching war.

How will the political landscape, the dragons, and the potential for violence and loss of life affect Tam and Corin’s relationship, and what impact will their romance have on the outcome for Caithen?

Moth and Spark isn’t a perfect book—I have multiple issues to pick with it—but for me, it was a greatly absorbing one.

The worldbuilding was a bit confusing to me because of the use of names like Mycene (with its similarity to Mycenae) and Illyria, another ancient Greek place name. When I tried to orient myself in relationship to those words I couldn’t because the map of Caithen was hard to place in relationship to Europe, as were some of the other place names used in the book. Also, the society was constructed more like eighteenth or nineteenth century Europe, with carriages and Sarian firearms in use.

Kaetrin: I agree Janine. I’m not super familiar with classical studies but even I’ve heard of Mycenae and Illyria before.  It was a bit jarring – because the world in Moth and Spark is not our world at all.

Janine: Yes– the novel is set in a Europe-inspired continent but the countries don’t, as far as I can tell, correspond to specific places in Europe.

Still, I enjoyed all the politics, both between nations and between individuals in the Caithenian court. I liked the dragons which owed much to Anne McCaffrey’s dragons and riders, but had enough qualities of their own that this felt more like an homage than a ripoff.

Kaetrin: I’ve not read McCaffrey, so this wasn’t something that struck me.  I did like the dragons and their riders though – although there was an inconsistency late in the book I’m having trouble reconciling and in general I would have liked a lot more of the dragons.

Janine: I think the prologue lead us to expect more of the dragons. I wanted more of them sooner.

While the worldbuilding isn’t as detailed as in some fantasy novels, I think it is strong enough to satisfy a lot of readers if they approach this as a romance in a fantasy setting. I was drawn into the politics but they weren’t so complex as to overwhelm the romance at any point.

Kaetrin: I found the politics and court intrigue fascinating. I felt like this was most of the book (apart from the romance) because the dragons didn’t play a huge part in the story until the end.  (They have key roles in various parts of the book but the story isn’t about dragons really).

Nevertheless, I was completely drawn in by the politics and machinations. I found it twisty enough to keep my interest and get me thinking but not so much that it was impossible to understand.

To add to that, the romance was interwoven very well into the court intrigue and it is clear that Tam is quickly valued by Corin for being able to think quickly and be clear-headed and sensible.  It was a refreshing change for me as a reader too.  I am really tired of heroines jumping to silly conclusions.

Was he already obligated to some other woman? The pang of apprehension she felt was strong enough to warn her that she was in more danger than she had supposed possible so soon. Firmly, she told herself not to make guesses about such things. He had other things on his mind, she had seen that and he had told her.

Janine: Yes, that was nice.

The worldview expressed in the novel jarred me on occasion. This was a society that prized marriages for women so I understood why sleeping with Corin could present a conflict for Tam (though contradictory information is given about this; we are told in Corin’s POV that if she’s thought to have seduced him, it could “jeopardize her standing” and that her reputation is “at stake” in this, but also in Tam’s POV that “since he was who he was, she would likely be exempt from the usual scorn heaped upon a man’s mistress, at least in public. A future husband would not consider her used goods […]“). There were times when I felt the novel was bending over backwards to assure me that Tam wasn’t a loose woman, and it felt unnecessary.

There was also a point in the novel in which Corin visits a poor, crime ridden neighborhood and thinks that “Humanity invariably sorted itself, and some people were the dregs.”  This read like a throwaway line and since at other times he had kinder thoughts for poor people, I got over it, but the way it was worded took me aback.

Kaetrin: I didn’t particularly notice this in the story.  I thought he was pretty enlightened for a prince. He seemed to have the people’s well being at heart and wasn’t afraid of hard work and his sense of duty was very strong.  His distaste for idle indulgence was one of the things he and Tam had in common.

Janine: The hard work was a quality I really liked about Corin. When we are in his POV, the narration was terse and while that choice doesn’t always work for me, I thought that here that choice worked beautifully for his character. It conveyed the tension and pressure that he was under; the weight of his responsibilities and expectations of himself. All of that added to his appeal.

Kaetrin: There was a scene when he is casting off a former mistress where I thought he was pretty harsh – but then Corin wasn’t perfect and I liked that he wasn’t.  He certainly had his reasons for being callous on that occasion and he explained them well enough to her. His flaws (this being only one of them), conversely, helped me like him more – they made him more accessible for me.

Janine: I had forgotten that scene with the mistress. I can’t say it helped me like him but some of his other imperfections did – more on that later.

There is something to be said for a book that is extraordinarily readable. Moth and Spark was hard to put down, and kept me turning the pages very late into the night. Whereas many books suffer from sagging middles, here the middle section was perhaps the strongest part, because that was where the romance between Corin and Tam was situated.  Like you, I loved the court politics and the way they affected and were affected by Corin and Tam’s budding relationship.

Kaetrin: Their relationship was very fast-growing and usually, this would be a problem for me as I’m not a fan of instalove.  However, here, the world was different to ours so I felt that the rules didn’t apply in the same way they would for a contemporary novel.  Also, there was a delightful amount of conversation and interplay between the two. I feel like I got to see them fall in love. Their dinner in the Terrace Room in particular was a big plus for me.

They were attracted to each other from the beginning but they also thought about their relationship with care for the other person.  They didn’t jump in wildly and they weren’t irresponsible.

Also, it is clear that they each have particular gifts – and they are needed for Corin to complete his task of freeing the dragons.  So I imputed a kind of magical attraction to their pairing – in fantasy this works well for me.

Janine: I didn’t do that. The quick attraction worked better for me with Tam’s character because she responded to it with some caution. With Corin’s character I felt he realized he loved Tam too quickly and I felt a little cheated as a result, though I do agree that Terrace Room scene (their first date) was lovely.

Kaetrin: The middle of the book was definitely the strongest for me too.  It took me a while to get into.  It starts off with the dragon prophecy (for want of a better word) and then there’s hardly anything about dragons. Then Tam is dreaming and that initially mystified me.

Janine: That dream was confusing but I don’t mind some confusion in the beginning of a novel, especially in fantasy or SF where there is a new world to get to know. I agree the pace picked up once they met, about one fifth into the book.

Kaetrin: It took a while before things started to gel in my head.  But, as you told me Janine, once the protagonists were spending time together, things became much more interesting and compelling.   Corin and Tam were so clever together. I loved their mutual respect for one another. It doesn’t sound sexy but it really was.

She had made her choices, set herself on her course, and that was the very thing he most loved about her. She would not be swayed from what she thought in her core was right and necessary. Not even if he did command her. She was stronger than that.

And here, where Corin asks Tam to undertake a dangerous task:

“I think it will be very, very dangerous,” he said. He was sterner than she had ever seen him. “You could be lost, or you might set something free. I don’t want you to do it at all. I think we were lucky last time.”

“But you’re asking me.”

“You might say it’s my duty to ask,” he said, with a small, bitter laugh.  He let go of her hand. “I can’t let love protect you. But it is absolutely not a command. You can say no. I hope you do.”

How hard that must have been for him to say, all of it. “You know I won’t,” she said gently.

“I do know that,” he said. “I’m letting you choose your risk, because that is the only thing I have to give you. But please, Tam, don’t do it just because you think it would be cowardly not to. Use your reason. Make a decision that would make your father proud.”

Janine: That was a great scene. One thing I love about wartime romances is that sense of larger events engulfing the characters and at the same time magnifying the romanticism of their relationship. Having to put the duty to save others ahead of self and want can do that and I felt it did here.

I liked Corin’s admiration for Tam a lot, but sometimes it got to be too much. I think it could be argued that Tam is a Mary Sue. She is beautiful, intelligent, has unusual and unexpected powers, almost everyone adores her, and those who don’t are either unsympathetic characters or jealous of her. And yet despite all this I couldn’t help liking her.

Kaetrin: Oh yes, me too.  Tam was practically perfect in every way but she was so clever and sensible and quick – I couldn’t help liking her either.  She did have a bit of a mischievous streak in her – it gets her into trouble sometimes but it was another of her charms.

Janine: I liked Tam’s level-headedness and practicality even when overwhelmed. She didn’t let power go to her head, but nor did she hide her strengths.  When war came she showed herself to be a competent survivor – no easy task, and even at her most exhausted, she didn’t shy from or avoid the realities of the situation. For all these reasons, I found her heroic.

Corin wasn’t quite as heroic, but I liked that he felt fear and self-doubt. In romance we encounter many books that equate strength with an absence of fear. Corin doubted his own strength, and part of his journey was finding it. There were times I wanted a little less self-doubt from him, but it grounded his character in reality, so I wouldn’t have wanted him to have none.

His best quality was his understanding that he had a political role to play. No matter how much he loved Tam, he didn’t forget his duty to his country or the dragons, but no matter how embroiled he was in his duties, he also didn’t forget that he loved Tam.

Kaetrin: I thought the ending was less strong and kind of anti-climactic.

Janine: Do you think this was partly because a couple of the key developments in the conflicts with Hadon and Tyrekh took place off page? I thought that was both believable and odd. It would have been overkill for Corin and Tam to be at the heart of all of these, but at the same time, I’m not used to seeing big things shake out without the main characters’ involvement.

Also, I thought the epilogue was three times longer than it needed to be.

Kaetrin: Yes, much too long.  It felt a bit like a Status Quo song there for a little while.

As for why the ending felt a little disappointing, I think it was because it had been built up (at least in my mind) to be somewhat more epic than it actually was.  I didn’t make the intuitive leaps that some of the characters did – and it was those leaps that led to the resolution. I was still back at plan A.

Additionally, I did have a couple of questions at the end that I don’t feel were answered or, answered sufficiently, in the text.  Given that the dragons were not free, how was it that they were able to help Corin as much as they did?  And the other question is too spoilery for the review I think.

Janine: I think the dragons were better able to help because of other events later in the book (I don’t want to spoil these).

Kaetrin: One other niggle: there was a section in the book where Corin is secreted away learning about dragon-riding and practicing his swordplay.  While I understood that to go into detail here would derail the momentum of the story, I couldn’t help but be disappointed that this section was only a couple of paragraphs.

He was learning rider skills fast—everything from understanding dragonspeech to staying strapped in while the dragon turned sideways to checking for scalemites…

I wanted more dragons!

Janine: That was a shortcut, no doubt.  One of things I liked best is that Moth and Spark is pretty darn romantic for a novel outside the romance genre. Despite its flaws, I think it is a book that could have a wide appeal to readers of romance.

Kaetrin: Yes, I think fantasy readers might be less forgiving of some aspects of the book.  The romance was very satisfying.  I think those who liked books like Warprize (Elizabeth Vaughan) or the Tairen Souls series (CL Wilson) would like this one.  In the end, I’d say it’s more successful as a romance (the epilogue, though too long, was quite romantic) and, good as a fantasy story but not as strong in that department as something like Paladin of Souls (Lois McMaster Bujold).

I wanted to ask you Janine what parallels you saw between Moth and Spark and Pride and Prejudice. The author’s website says that she was heavily influenced by P&P (and it is mentioned in the acknowledgements at the end of the book as well).  I didn’t see a lot of it, but I wouldn’t consider myself an Austen scholar (I haven’t actually read the book the whole way through but I have seen the BBC version many times!)  I did see some parallels in the language. Here for instance.

She had no expectations of anything lasting; in her experience, men were fickle creatures, falling in love with every fresh set of handsome eyes while expecting the women to be stalwarts of loyalty.

But not really in the story. What about you?

Janine: I’m a long, long way from an Austen scholar myself. I’ve read Pride and Prejudice just once. The only parallel to P&P I saw in the story was in Tam’s levelheadedness and willingness to tell Corin what she honestly thought of him despite his higher status, and in the fact that Corin was attracted to her because of that.

What grade would you give Moth and Spark? While I enjoyed reading it, it has its share of flaws.

Kaetrin: I’d give it a B – because I’m mainly a romance reader and the romance here worked for me.  I think those who read it mainly for the fantasy might experience the book differently – if I were grading as a fantasy, I’d probably say a B-/C+.

Janine: I’d rate it a C+ as a fantasy, but as a romance it’s a B- for me.

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