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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Book Review: Sword of Fire and Sea by Erin Hoffman

Erin Hoffman's debut novel is a traditional high fantasy romp formed from the ashes of a collaborative project.  It's origins are a bit unusual in a field of secondary world fantasies created by individuals with Tolkien on the mind, and the effort to move beyond the collaboration shows in the development of the world's magic system, mechanics and all.  As a novel, Sword of Fire and Sea leaves something to be desired, but as a fantasy adventure, it hits all the right marks.

Vidarian, a reputable ship captain, gets caught up in a complex web of magic-wielding priestesses when he reluctantly agrees to ferry fire priestess Ariadel to a safe haven.  There, the priestesses hope, the Vkortha, their mortal enemies, will not be able to find Ariadel, whose abilities might threaten Vkorthan power.  But the journey takes Vidarian and his crew through dangerous waters, where pirates and sorceresses await.  Yet more shockingly, the journey reveals a destiny that Vidarian never knew he had, one which puts the fate of the world in his hands:  in the end, he will
have to choose between one future and another, digging through centuries of myth and legends to find the right "choice."
One the interesting things about Hoffman's novel is its bipolar adherence to the traditional forms of fantasy.  While at the heart of the narrative can be found a cliche "chosen one" story in the form of Vidarian, the narrative also takes away the security of knowing what is the "right choice" for the mythical figure.  Vidarian not only must choose which future is the right one for his world, but he must also do so without knowing for sure which choice is the right one, all while fending off Imperial soldiers who want to prevent him from making any choice whatsoever and others who want him to choose one path or another.  The novel never betrays its answers in this regard, which might help boost it above other high fantasy novels floating out there.

But beyond that, Sword of Fire and Sea is essentially an adventure fantasy akin to the adventure novels of the romantic period.  There isn't anything wrong with this, but it is important to recognize.  A great deal of the novel is occupied with action:  ships in combat, the heroes fighting back enemies of various shapes and sizes, heavy uses of magic, searching for enormous mystical creatures and combating unknowns.  Thankfully, the novel avoids the pitfalls of D&D dungeon crawlers.  While the characters do have to "collect things" in order to succeed in their mission, Hoffman avoids making such collecting about fighting back nameless, faceless monsters in "secret places" (a.k.a. a dungeon or magical forest).  The people involved in stopping Vidarian and Ariadel are the very people one wouldn't expect to turn their backs, which adds some depth to a novel which doesn't show itself as particularly "deep" (as most adventure novels don't, even when "depth" does exist).

In many respects, Hoffman's balance between adventure, manipulated cliche, and character make for a compelling novel that is a lot of fun to read.  Personally, I am not an adventure fantasy fan, and I have a very short leash for the trappings of the fantasy genre.  But Sword of Fire and Sea navigated those trappings in a way that allowed me to get lost in the excitement.  If not for all of the characters being adults, you might expect this story to show up on your young adult shelves, enticing teenagers (and the adults like me who sometimes pretend to be teenagers) with its magic and wonder.  There's something to be said about the way we read YA fantasy, as opposed to fantasy marketed for an adult audience (in which teenagers undoubtedly implant themselves, because they like Tolkien and GRRM too).  But that's something to think about later.

The adventurous nature of Sword of Fire and Sea, however, is also where a some of Hoffman's flaws can be found.  While enjoyable, the novel often moves too swiftly, jumping through significant moments of conflict to get the characters to the next "level."  The result is a lack of tension for many important aspects of the novel.  Yes, Vidarian often must fight against unusual things, sometimes at overwhelming odds, but his success in these ventures sometimes feels too easy; he rarely sheds blood, or Hoffman allows her characters to escape.  One examples involves the fire priestesses, in which Vidarian and his companions learn and ugly truth and are trapped by the Vkortha.  Without much in the way of physical conflict, they manage to escape, taking flight in a gryphon-pulled basket that conveniently lay in wait.  There are other instances like this; each of them detracts from the worry we should have as readers that something might actually happen to Vidarian or his friends.  Of course, things do happen to them, but I would have liked some of the physical conflicts to take part in those "happenings."  Largely speaking, the physical conflicts in Sword of Fire and Sea serve to maintain the adventure narrative.

One other aspect of the novel which is given weak treatment is the growing romance between Vidarian and Ariadel.  Their relationship develops far too swiftly, the result of which is a strain on our ability to suspend disbelief.  Hoffman skips a lot of time early in the novel in order to avoid pages and pages of people walking on the deck of a ship, but more scenes between Vidarian and Ariadel might have helped show how they went from mere acquaintances to close friends to lovers.  Without such scenes, the romance comes out of nowhere and Vidarian's motives for much of the last half of the book lack the power needed to justify his actions.

Despite this, however, the book is a load of fun, and it does leave a lot of interesting questions to be answered in future volumes.  Unlike some traditional fantasy narratives, Vidarian's stint as a "chosen one" ends in the first book, hinting that what will occupy the next two in the series (yes, another trilogy) are the conflicts arising from his choices as a chosen one.  I have a feeling that Hoffman is going to take us into very different territory from this point forward.  I, for one, am looking forward to it.

If you want to learn more about Hoffman and her work, check out her website (and Pyr's website).  You can also check out the interview my friend and I did at The Skiffy and Fanty Show about the book and Hoffman's other interests.

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