2016’s Cold-Forged Flame is the first story in Marie Brennan’s Varekai series.
Called up out of shadows, without memory or even a remembered name, the swordswoman is magically bound to carry out a quest using methods that are unclear, for a purpose that is not explained. All she knows is that she must somehow collect blood from the cauldron of the Lhian. Whoever or whatever the Lhian might be.
One final detail she learns: most of the people who try to win a prize from the Lhian never return.
The Lhian’s island is easy enough to reach. Once there, the swordswoman struggles to find her way across a mutable landscape, one that can conjure up obstacles that exploit her weaknesses. Along the way, she acquires a companion, Aadet. Aadet clearly knows far more about the Lhian than the swordswoman does (hard not to know more, since she knows nothing), but whether he will prove a true ally or simply a rival cooperating until the pair reach the end game is unclear.
As she struggles towards her goal, the swordswoman begins to learn who and what she is. It’s a mixed victory: understanding herself better makes it easier to reach the Lhian but the more she knows, the more Lhian can demand from her as the price of her quest.
I have read one of Brennan’s Lady Trent books, The Tropic of Serpents1. This is a very different sort of story than Tropic. The Lady Trent stories seem to be the secondary world analog to the Steerswoman books, in which the protagonist tries to reason out the rules of their world despite various plot distractions. Cold-Forged Flame has significant puzzle-solving elements, but it is much closer to traditional sword and sorcery.
Cold-Forged Flame is also the Actor’s Nightmare: Heroic Quest version. The Actor’s Nightmare elements may explain why Brennan chose to tell it in present tense. There is less risk of letting something crucial slip in the process of telling the story. Handled correctly, the reader only learns things as the protagonist does.
Cold-Forged Flame is part of Tor’s ongoing efforts to bring the novella back into the limelight. Brevity forces a focus and quicker pace longer fantasies often lack. Not having been given enough space for sidequests2, Brennan can include only those elements that forward the story. Ah, narrative efficiency! Perhaps it should be more widely practiced.
1: The Tropic of Serpents was the first book I read in 2014. I would have guessed that I read it much longer ago than that.…
2: In the spirit of brevity, I won’t ask why it is that olden timey fantasy eschewed firearms, while some modern authors have begun adding black powder firearms to their settings.