Apr 16 2013 11:00am

Sleeps With Monsters: Martha Wells’ The Element of Fire

The Element Of Fire Martha Wells Sleeps With MonstersMany 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!)

Liz Bourke has too much to read and never enough time. Find her on Twitter @hawkwing_lb.

David Holden
1. davidholden
Oh, yes! I love this book, and I just read all of her books over the last two months. I really, really liked the Books of the Raksura, but the others have all been great, too.
2. scorbet
Yes, both to how much easier it is to point to stuff I don't like about something, and to how wonderful this book is! I first read it a few years ago, but had a sudden urge to reread it last month, and loved it again and was left wanting more about these characters in this setting please...
Ralph Feldhake
3. feldhake
Folks, any of you who haven't read this need to go do it now. This book and its even better sequel The Death of the Necromancer are each available as DRM-free ebooks for $2.99. $2.99! What are you still doing here?!
Steven Halter
4. stevenhalter
Thanks--"The Element of Fire" and "The Death of the Necromancer" now reside on my Nook.
5. OtterB
I do like this book; I still remember the pleasure of finding it on the shelf in the bookstore and being sucked in. I like all of Martha's work, really, up to and including the brand new steampunkish YA Emilie and the Hollow World, which I just read last weekend. I'm looking forward to your comments as we read along.
mark Proctor
6. mark-p
I agree I love The Element of Fire and especially Kade. But overall I think I slightly prefer the Fall of Ile-Rien novels but maybe only because together they are longer.

I don't always like her writing style,if you just read a few sentences it dosn't seem particularly good and I found it a bit off-putting at first but she is very good at writing a story, and the charictors and the world(s) they fit into.
I just reread her Ile-Rien books and as soon as there is time I'm about to start on the Raksura series now they are all out. Hopefully they will be just as good.
Paul Weimer
7. PrinceJvstin
It's one of my favorites, too. It's short, but it gives us the first taste, chronologically, of the Ile-Rien universe and its characters.
Victoria Janssen
8. VictoriaJanssen
Can't wait to read the rest of your Wells posts!
9. wyoarmadillos
I love Martha Wells books. It is great to see her works getting some love. I read the Iln-Rien series backward, so while this was her debut novel and first Iln-Rien book chronologically it was the last one I read in this series. A must have series. I look forward to the rest of your reviews of her works.
10. Ita
I don't understand why she's not a NYT bestselling author. She's great at creating interesting and likable characters, fast-paced plots, and well thought out complicated worlds. LOVE her books!
Jessica Reisman
11. jwynne
Yes, Martha should be way more popular than she is. She rocks the second world fantasy HARD.
12. Zhi Zhu
I love all of Martha Well's Ile-Rien books, though I have to say that I love "The Fall of Ile-Rien" trilogy best. I just adore the character of Tremaine.
13. seth e.
Coincidentally I'm in the middle of Death of the Necromancer (not having read any other Ile-Rien books) and I can confirm it's pretty damn fun.
14. Rachel Neumeier
Just read all of Wells' books over the last month or so! As far as I'm concerned, they just get better and better. Looking forward to your reviews of her other books!
Kelly McCullough
15. KellyMcCullough
One of my favorite fantasy novels ever, and, in my opinion one of the best in the field along with Death of the Necromancer. I've really been enjoying her more recent work as well, but this pair holds a special place for me.
Estara Swanberg
16. Estara
All her backlist rereleased ebooks are remarkably low in price. My three favourite Wells are Wheel of the Infinite, The Death of the Necromancer and The Element of Fire, but I haven't been disappointed in any of the books I've read by her yet. I've got Emilie on my reader TBR.
Sara H
17. LadyBelaine
I have always loved this book, and I love the next ones even more. I love everything about the Ile-Rien setting and I long for Martha Wells to write more!
18. QuickFox
I have just finished reading The Element of Fire and thought it was great! I'm probably being dense, but I can't seem to figure out why the book has the title it does though. Can anyone clue me in please?

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