I should start off by saying that I don’t love fantasy. To set the bar for you, I’m someone who has never read The Lord of the Rings. Let me clarify: I’ve never finished reading The Lord of the Rings. I’ve tried. On one occasion, I made it halfway through the third book before I quit.
There seems to be a language barrier for me. If I met someone on the street who talked the way fantasy authors write, I would consider them a pompous ass.
Flesh and Fire: Book One of the Vineart War by Laura Anne Gilman isn’t as over-the-top with the overwrought dialogue and description as some I’ve read, but there’s no question that you’re reading a fantasy novel. For one thing, there’s the title; it might be a reference to the flesh of the grapes and … burning, but otherwise it’s unrelated to the contents of the book.
Here’s the basic gist. “Flesh and Fire” takes place in a fictional, post-medieval world where grapes can be used to make not only wine, but “spellwine” which has all manner of magical properties. You can use it to make fire, affect the weather, heal people and generally make the world a better place. The knowledge of growing and creating these wines is controlled by the Vinearts, who have a mystical connection to the land and the wines. The story follows Jerzy, an apprentice Vineart, as he learns his craft and becomes aware of an unseen evil attacking the land.
There are a number of elements of this book that I quite liked. First of all, the magic itself was very compelling. The way the user take a mouthful and says the words before swallowing to release the magic felt very real. It was a visceral magic, something that connected the users body to the end result. The descriptions of the cultivation and distillation of the grapes and wine through Jerzy’s five sense was also extremely compelling.
This is also a fairly well realized world. There are no trolls or dwarves, mercifully, and the fantasy setting is interesting from a political and social setting. This is no utopia. Slavery is rife and the city-states seem to be constantly bickering.
Yet that same political intrigue, which Gilman uses as a foundation for much of the plot, feels paper thin for most of the novel. It does deepen a little at the end, but an entire subplot around a foreign island is forgettable and unbelievable. We’re told that these two dimensional characters are excellent at politics and diplomacy, but that’s the only reason we might suspect them of it.
Those sections reminded me of my 2 year old daughter running around the house, shouting, “I’m sneaking!” If she hadn’t told me, I wouldn’t have known.
There is a quality core to “Flesh and Fire” that comes out when we deal with Jerzy and his life. And the ending hints at a deeper exploration of the politics of the world than we’ve seen thus far. If you like fantasy and are looking for something different, I’d recommend this book.
If you don’t like fantasy, or you’re afraid that it sounds like the annoying fantasy language has been replaced by annoying wine snobbery, I would say you’d be right to give this one a pass.