Fires of the Faithful
by Naomi Kritzer
For sixteen-year-old Eliana, life at her conservatory of music is a pleasant interlude between youth and adulthood, with the hope of a prestigious Imperial Court appointment at the end. But beyond the conservatory walls is a land blighted by war and inexplicable famine and dominated by a fearsome religious order known as the Fedeli, who are systematically stamping out all traces of the land’s old beliefs. Soon not even the conservatory walls can hold out reality. When one classmate is brutally killed by the Fedeli for clinging to the forbidden ways and another is kidnapped by the Circle–the mysterious and powerful mages who rule the land–Eliana can take no more. Especially not after she learns one of the Circle’s most closely guarded secrets.
Now, determined to escape the Circle’s power, burning with rage at the Fedeli, and drawn herself to the beliefs of the Old Way, Eliana embarks on a treacherous journey to spread the truth. And what she finds shakes her to her core: a past destroyed, a future in doubt, and a desperate people in need of a leader–no matter how young or inexperienced….
This book had so much promise. It’s a fantasy novel with an Italian-inspired setting, a queer heroine and a plot based around religious turmoil, all things I love, but wow this book was not well written.
I feel incredibly mean saying that because, despite my rating, this isn’t the worst book I’ve ever read. In fact this book disappointed me so much because it had so much promise, and I was looking forward to reading it after I read Naomi Kritzer’s Hugo Award-nominated novelette, The Thing About Ghost Stories, earlier this year. Fires of the Faithful was Kritzer’s debut novel, however, published back in 2002, and it’s easy to tell that this is a story from the very beginning of her career when compared to her more recent work.
This book was an easy enough read and I appreciated reading a novel with a queer heroine where the story wasn’t about the fact that she’s queer at all. Other than that, though, this novel was just… meh? The whole thing felt like a synopsis for a much better book.
The world-building wasn’t particularly strong, although I did prefer the initial setting of the music conservatory to the wider world, and oh my god Eliana was the worst. I’ve said before that I tend to like ‘unlikable’ women in fiction, but Eliana was so stuck-up and two-faced and the biggest pain in the backside. I’m sorry, but in what world am I supposed to believe that a 16 year old violinist can become a military leader with essentially zero training? I get that this is a fantasy novel, but none of the people in it ever acted like real people.
This novel just wasn’t written very well; there was no feeling in any of it. There are things Eliana goes through that would devastate most people, but she gets over it all like it’s nothing. For example, at one point she receives 30 lashes by the order of the book’s dastardly, moustache-twirling villain. She’s never been flogged before in her life, and yet she’s able to stop herself from crying out and is back on her feet within the hour. You would not be able to walk after 30 lashes, and you’d probably pass out from the pain.
She also treated her friend Giula like garbage, and I think even Kritzer did Giula dirty by the end of the novel. Oh, and shout out to the incredibly irritating side character, Giovanni, who hits Giula and never apologises. That was swell.
Essentially this book was a huge disappointment and I’m very sad about it, and I won’t be reaching for the concluding book of this duology. That’s a shame because from reviews it looks like the second book is where we get to the f/f romance, but I’m not going to read a bad book just because it has queer women in it when there are much better novels with queer women, and much better work by Kritzer herself, that I could be reading.