Martha Wells’ 1993 debut novel The Element of Fire is a standalone secondary-universe fantasy. It is the first of Wells’ Ile-Rien books. It was followed by The Death of the Necromancer, The Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy (The Wizard Hunters, The Ships of Air, and The Gate of Gods) and various short pieces.
A daring night-time raid on a sorcerer’s lair, a victim recovered, a mansion left aflame: enough of an adventure in itself. For Captain Thomas Boniface, this was just the beginning of a longer, more perilous campaign.
The rescued victim is Galen Dubell. Dubell is, thanks to a series of sudden deaths, currently the foremost expert on Ile-Rien’s magical defences. His kidnapper is Urbain Grandier, late of Bisra, of whom more later.
Thomas’ efforts to defend Ile-Rien are further complicated by court intrigue. Old King Fulstan spent his life making those around him miserable. When he died (little mourned) his legitimate son Roland became king. So far, Roland isn’t doing too well at his job. A lifetime of being bullied by his vicious father was poor preparation for rule. Roland is easily swayed, in particular by his favourite, the poisonous Denzil, Duke of Alsene.
Roland has an older half-sister, Princess Katherine Fontainon. Her mother, Moire, also known as the Queen of Air and Darkness, never bothered to marry Fulstan. Denied the throne by her status, but with an impressive talent for magic, the former Princess, now nicknamed Kade Carrion, left Ile-Rien for her mother’s fairy-tale kingdom. Now for some reason it seems Kade Carrion has returned. She will also be of interest later.
The Bisran sorcerer Grandier had the misfortune to be accused of dark magic. The kingdom of Bisra takes such matters very seriously. Grandier was arrested and tortured. The inquisition failed to extract any confession, but it did motivate Grandier, once he had escaped, to mount a brutal one-man war on the people who hurt him and everyone who facilitated his arrest.
Precisely why Grandier is living in Ile-Rien and why he wanted to kidnap Dubell is unclear — the man has little reason to care about Ile-Rien and lots of reasons to hate Bisra — but the reasons are unlikely to be good. Indeed, they aren’t. Grandier’s war will be bad for Ile-Rien and everyone in it. It’s up to Thomas and his allies, including Kade Carrion, to stop Grandier.
I am very quickly running out of Martha Wells books to review. Bother.
Ah, absolute monarchs. Bad mode of government, bad, bad. As evidenced by the damage that Roland is doing to Ile-Rien, even though he means well. He’s a ninny and his closest advisor is a poisonous snake. It falls to the rest of the court (the Dowager Queen, the Queen, various ministers, and of course Thomas Boniface) to keep the ship of state afloat. So far this has worked. Ile-Rien has not fallen to Bisra and Bisra’s inquisitors aren’t massacring heretics in Ile-Rien.
Grandier has an impressively bold plan, which fails impressively. People planning campaigns of vengeance should take note. Assembling an alliance composed almost entire of traitors and backstabbers may work well enough at first, but can turn into a lethal game of musical chairs once it becomes clear that not everyone will get to enjoy the spoils.
The characters1 are engaging, the setting is well-drawn, and the action moves right along. It’s not a long read, but it’s a good one. (Indeed, I would regard brevity as a virtue rather than a handicap.) The particular edition I read has been revised and re-edited by the author (so I cannot say what the original version was like) but this version is top-flight. Both thumbs up.