A curmudgeonly speculative-fiction fan I used to know had rules for avoiding crap books that went more or less like this:
- Nothing with swords or dragons in the title or the cover
- Nothing with a map of imaginary places at the front
There are many counter-examples to prove the rules, and even more bad books not filtered by them, but they do eliminate a lot of books I’m pretty sure I don’t need to read (I’ve had my lifetime quota of lame Tolkien knockoffs, thanks). I usually think twice before picking up a sword-y or dragon-y book, and the presence of a map is not likely to sway me toward an impulse purchase. Fire Logic has a big sword on the cover and a map in the front. I’d also be inclined to add a rule about titles that define the context of a series: Fire Logic, especially once you learn a little about the set up, implies that Earth Logic, Water Logic, and Air Logic will follow. Poor Fire Logic had three strikes against it before I’d read even a word.
So why did I read it? The third volume in the series is published by Small Beer Press. I have great faith and trust in their editorial judgment; their track record of publishing the kind of books I like is virtually flawless. In their promotional material, clearly aware that their audience might be leery of a mainstream fantasy tetralogy, they went to some pains to assure potential readers that this was not a standard issue heroic fantasy.
And indeed it’s not. What struck me most about this novel was its sense of place. Shaftal, despite a name that still strikes me as silly, feels like a nation where people could really live, not a sketchy setting for events of import to befall heroes and villains. There’s no incarnation of evil bent on utter subjugation of the world; there are invaders and a resistance, and the readers sympathies — and many of the characters’ — are tugged back and forth by the choices that people make. There is magic, but it’s not of the gaudy, lightning-bolts-from-the-fingers variety. Marks doesn’t belabor the principles by which magic operates, but they nonetheless feel internally consistent (a neat trick).
Marks’ society is very thoroughly egalitarian, few of the central characters are heterosexual, and nobody in the novel makes a big deal over anyone’s gender or sexual preference. It makes many of the standard fantasy genre tropes look very reactionary. I’m no expert, but I certainly can’t think of any fantasy set in a pre-industrial society as gender-neutral as Fire Logic. (In Edgar Rice Burroughs’ day, heroes could of course stumble upon cities, islands, or planets ruled by women — but ultimately that seems just as non-feminist: “Oh look, Dr. Jameson! The women are in charge! How very queer indeed!”)
On the down side, much of the plot was a little too military-oriented for my personal taste, and while Marks’ characters usually emerge as well-rounded, I could wish they were fundamentally a little farther from standard-issue fantasy types in aspects other than sexual orientation. Marks’ dialog has a realistic flow and is blessedly free of faux archaisms, but that makes her prose look a little dense and early 20th-century by comparison. But the bottom line is that I liked Fire Logic quite a bit, and I look forward to reading the next volume.
Needs More Demons? Nope.