Many critics, many reviewers, I think, find it difficult to talk plainly about the things that they love and the reasons why they love them. The temptation exists to direct your attention primarily to its flaws, to minimise or to justify the ways in which it falls short of objective perfection. (Not that objective perfection is a thing that exists, except theoretically.) It is possible to speak of flaws objectively, and of technique. Speaking of what you love and why you love it—speaking honestly—exposes yourself. It’s a form of intellectual nakedness.
This lengthy preamble is my way of talking myself around to confronting Martha Wells’ first novel, The Element of Fire.
The Element of Fire is twenty years old this year. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read, and I wonder how much more I would have loved it had I read it in my teens, before I developed the first smidgeons of the analytical reflex. (I came to it relatively late.) It’s Martha Wells’ debut novel, and as a debut novel it is singularly accomplished. It situates itself at a remove from the faux-medievalism of high fantasy with which the rest of the field (at the time of its publication) was largely in dialogue, but, while second-world fantasy, it hasn’t cut itself adrift from historical context: it has the flavour of ancien régime France while being wholly, entirely, its own thing.
The court of Ile-Rien, around which the action of The Element of Fire centres itself, is a complicated place. King Roland, recently come to his majority, is a weak ruler, warped by the abuse of his years-dead father. The court’s real power remains the Dowager Queen, Ravenna, who retains authority despite having relinquished the regency. Thomas Boniface, Captain of the Queen’s Guard and Ravenna’s lover (and her favourite), has to navigate the dangerous personality politics of the court, between the king, his favourite (and cousin) Denzil, Ravenna, and the young queen. Not only this: a dangerous sorcerer, Urbain Grandier, seems to have arrived in town, and while Thomas succeeds in rescuing another sorcerer from his grasp, no one appears to have any idea what Grandier means to do next.
Into this web of tensions, Kade, called Kade Carrion, unexpectedly reappears. Roland’s bastard elder sister, daughter of the old king and the fayre Queen of Air and Darkness (who abandoned her to the mercies of the court), she’s well known to hate her family. What she really wants is a mystery to Thomas, and to the court. She could be in league with Grandier, or mean to press her own claim on the throne. But when dark armies out of fayre attack the palace itself, Thomas at least must trust Kade—and Kade must trust Thomas.
Wells’ deftness of characterisation is delicate, precise and astute. An outside attack doesn’t lead to all the court’s factions banding together under capable leadership: rather it intensifies the amount of politicking and the coming-to-fruition of treasonous plots. The characters, down to the least of them, are no blank placeholders. Wells has a fantastic touch for conjuring personality in all of her work, and here the characters of Kade and Thomas, particularly—Kade roguish, damaged, fey and honourable in her own way; Thomas world-weary, cynical, and loyal where his loyalty is given—come alive in their interactions with their world.
I think it a fantastic book. In its honour, the next few instalments of Sleeps With Monsters will focus on a selection of Martha Wells’ other works:the Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy and Wheel of the Infinite, at least, and possibly a surprise or two as well. (I’m not quite caught up on the Raksura books: so much to read, so little time!)