Star Rating: *** 3/5
Title: Cold-Forged Flame
Author: Marie Brennan
Review by Silicon.
The sound of the horn pierces the apeiron, shattering the stillness of that realm. Its clarion call creates ripples, substance, something more. It is a summons, a command. There is will. There is need.
And so, in reply, there is a woman.
At the beginning—no—at the end—she appears, full of fury and bound by chains of prophecy.
Setting off on an unexplained quest from which she is compelled to complete, and facing unnatural challenges in a land that doesn’t seem to exist, she will discover the secrets of herself, or die trying. But along the way, the obstacles will grow to a seemingly insurmountable point, and the final choice will be the biggest sacrifice yet.
Cold-Forged Flame is the first novella in a series by Marie Brennan which follows this strange woman through her adventures in a Celtic-inspired land. Publication date is September 13th 2016. I received an ARC from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
This is a pretty unique story that works very well in novella format. Unfortunately, it didn't grab me. There's nothing big that I felt it did wrong--it just didn't pull my interest as much as I wanted it too.
The premise of this book is essentially "You know nothing, Jon Snow, but we're forcing you on a quest anyway."
The main character awakens into an unfamiliar world and is immediately bound to complete strange quest by the group who summoned her. She has been magically compelled to find a cauldron of blood upon a strange, dangerous island, and return a vial of this blood to her summoners. However, there is a catch--she's given almost no information about the quest or herself, and indeed can't even remember her name, her abilities, anything about her life or the land which she finds herself in. As she fights through the island's challenges, she slowly puts together pieces of herself, and discovers she indeed has a lot more left to lose than she thought.
Usually these sort of "go on a quest, but we're giving you no information"-type plots annoy me, but we discover later on that there is a reason for this non-communication that makes sense. I liked that. I also liked the free will vs. compulsion theme that this story plays with, but I felt it could have pushed more and gone farther than it did. The obstacles she's forced to go through are diverse and feel genuinely difficult. The main character is challenged physically and emotionally throughout the story. She has to balance the necessity to complete the quest with significant misgivings about the world she finds herself in--who can she trust? Should she complete the quest, or try to trick her way out of it? Should she try and figure out who she is, or will that only make her situation more dangerous?
The climax is excellent. I really, REALLY liked the way everything came together at that scene. My favorite moment is definitely when she realizes what she will have to give up in order to complete her quest. Everything before is an excellent build-up to the final reveal and it is done very skillfully.
There's very few characters in this story, understandable given the length. The main character, who is unnamed, is very fun to read. She's kick-ass, pissed off (VERY understandably), and determined. Though she starts out knowing nothing, she manages to discover bits and pieces of herself in a very organic fashion--figuring out she can fight, for example, when she gets attacked unexpectedly. She's sarcastic, suspicious, and not particularly nice, but also deeply conflicted and because of her lack of self-knowledge. She's been thrown into a bad situation and grimly determines she must make the best of it. She felt very real, and I sympathized with her situation. I was very much on her side the entire time.
Along the way, she meets a companion, Aadet, a stranger who also seeks the cave she's headed towards. She's extremely suspicious and curt with him, but as they travel together she warms to him more and even trusts him--they become friends, in a way. He is definitely weaker and less capable than her, but they depend on each other to make it to the cave that is their goal.
Brennan does a good job of humanizing the summoners especially through the character of Therdiad. They're not some distant evil or unambiguously selfish group, but also just people making the best of a bad situation.
The great enemy, the Lhian, who controls the island and the obstacles the main character is forced to go through, was excellently done. She's a significant power, a dangerous force, and an extremely perceptive one. She isn't evil, and her motivations and challenges make sense, given the gifts she guards.
This story is written in Third Limited POV, and uses present tense throughout. I personally liked the use of present tense--it underlines the way the main character is forced to live entirely in the present, due to her lack of a past and an uncertain future. Overall, the writing style is very clean and very experienced--it's not in-your-face with any self-conscious style and allows the focus to remain on the story. I particularly enjoyed the dialogues between the main character and the various people she meets. The tension and pacing was decent, and definitely builds up at the final scene. I would have preferred the book to have more tension. It's not a race against time story, but I feel like the plot would have benefited from an increase in urgency.
The setting of this story is Celtic-inspired, as far as I could tell. I admit that Celtic culture, mythology, and language is something that I have only very peripheral and basic knowledge about, so I may be missing quite a bit here. I liked the setting, though I would have liked more information about the world--it rather feels like this story takes place in a bubble, given the main character's lack of knowledge for most of the story. We do get clues about the political struggles between nations by the end of the story, but I would have liked to know more. It's not a typical fantasy sword-and-sorcery setting, which I appreciated. The island was my favorite part--I really liked the way that it could appear or not appear, the mutable landscape, the many obstacles it presented.
Not a whole lot to say here. I liked that there were multiple, extremely capable female characters--indeed, they were the most important characters in the story. Given the setting, I was unsurprised to find no PoC, and relationships/attractions are not mentioned in this story at all so I can't say anything about LGBT+ inclusion. I don't really have a problem with the diversity here though, because it IS a very short story with very few major characters.
This book was a "meh" for me. It definitely had elements I enjoyed--the main character, the climax, the writing--but overall, I just didn't feel particularly pulled to read more. It's a good twist on the Sword & Sorcery quest archetype and I didn't feel it had any particular major faults. If you like this type, I'd recommend it. But ultimately my ambivalence towards Jon Snow plots, the not-quite-high-enough tension, and the feeling of disconnect I had to the rest of the land have me setting it down as a "meh" rather than as a "YES". But I can definitely see another reader enjoying this book.