Reviewing a novella is often, I find, a challenge. They’re long enough to spread their wings into worldbuilding, nuance, the taste of complexity in ways that short stories cannot quite manage. But compared to novels—and particularly the modern SFF novel—they’re brief and pointed things, unusually disciplined and sharp.
Marie Brennan is, at this point, probably best known for her Memoirs of Lady Trent series, which began in 2013 with A Natural History of Dragons. The Memoirs of Lady Trent have a rich, retrospective, Victorian-influenced voice, and a measured—indeed, sprawling—approach to pace.
Cold-Forged Flame is a beast of an entirely different stripe. Stylistically, it’s much more similar to Brennan’s Onyx Court series (Midnight Never Come, In Ashes Lie, A Star Shall Fall, With Fate Conspire), but with a crisper, more modern voice. Ninety-nine pages in its paper version, it’s as punchy as it is brief, and it has the flavour of the sword-and-sorcery subgenre without falling into sword-and-sorcery’s major pitfalls—the largest of which is predictability.
She comes into existence atop a flat, rough slab of stone. In the first few instants, as the sound of the horn fades, that stone consumes all her attention: its pitted, weathered surface, shedding grit against her knuckles where her fist is braced. It is ancient, that stone, and full of memory.
As she herself is not.
A woman with no memory of who and what she is, forced to fetch several drops of blood from the cauldron of a being called the Lhian—a task (a quest) that takes her through a landscape that changes in order to put obstacles in her way.
A woman without a past shouldn’t be this compelling. But Brennan has a knack for capturing her main character’s physicality, for conveying personality through action. And through her assumptions: Cold-Forged Flame‘s main character is sharp and pragmatic, ruthless with herself and occasionally with other people, mistrustful of the situation she finds herself in but resigned, too. Sometimes compassionate; mostly honourable—and fiercely angry to not only be without memory of who she is, but to have been warned that the more she remembers, the more she might lose when she comes face to face with the Lhian.
The tone and tenor of Cold-Forged Flame, its setting and its worldbuilding, calls to mind the changeable islands and uncanny cauldrons of Irish and Welsh mythology. The names—the Lhian, Therdiad, Ectain cul Simnann—that crop up in the narrative reinforce this impression. There’s a chilly rocky rainswept sense to the Lhian’s island: This story feels like it could be an episode from the Ossianic Cycle—except that one character has a pistol, and another talks about a revolution.
It’s a tight, tense, gripping narrative, that builds to an excellent climax. The conclusion leaves the possibility open that there may yet be further stories involving Cold-Forged Flame’s main character. I think I’d like that.
Actually, I think I’d like that a lot.