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ASHES

A novel by Paul J. Bennett
(2019, Paul J. Bennett)

Frozen Flame, book 1
 
 

A fire-mage trained by orcs and a water-mage trained at en elite school join forces in a city to find his missing villagers and to gain her anonymity, uncovering a larger plot in the process.

 
 
 
   

+ -- 2nd reading (paperback)
February 13th to 23rd, 2022

 
   

The setting to this book was mildly interesting, and there’s a bit of world-building in the background. I liked the fact that the orcs were not an evil species, but just another kind of being, but I wonder then –why call them orcs? I enjoyed the parts where the two mages were learning their respective trades, one with jealousy and the other with comraderie. But the writing was not great, especially the dialog –and most of the book is dialog. It’s stilted and ill-formed, with so much stating of the obvious and repeating questions, and it was not very enjoyable. Fortunately, the adventure when they meet up was interesting enough to keep the flow of the story going, even if they are both so na´ve that they were hard to swallow at times. My favorite part was probably the rescue on the river, where they used both fire and ice. The final battle was engaging, if not too intense. It was open-ended, of course, with a larger threat showing itself, which I expect to be a major part of the next book.

Spoiler review:

I’ve said this before, but the writing style has to click in the first couple of pages, and I can tell when a book is going to be difficult right from the start. The prologue with the orcs arriving at the raided village was mostly dialog, and it was all stilted and ill-formed. I thought this might be because we were getting orc-speech as an accented version of the common tongue, but unfortunately the author isn’t that clever, and the same kind of dialog follows not only the orcs, but humans of high class and low.

Both main characters are fish-out-of-water, completely na´ve and unaware of the world outside where they were trained. It’s cute at first, but gets more and more annoying as they discover more of the world, from the walled city to the river and their final destination.

When his village is burned to the ground and the villagers taken by slavers, Athgar is found by orcs and brought to their village. There is a power struggle, and I fully expect to see the banished clan leader in a future book. Found alive surrounded by ash, Athgar didn’t even know that he had the power of a fire-mage within him. But the orc shaman teaches him how to use his spark, until he finally decides that he needs to go in search of his sister and the rest of the villagers.

Natalia was the youngest person brought to the school of water magic, but it looks like she wasn’t being trained until she was much older, fed an inhibitor drug. There is a hint of a noble birth in her history, but nothing more at this stage of the story, which might be why she was kept safe until her power was released. When she’s selected to be a battle mage, the other girls (and boys, but we don’t really see them) are rude and condescending to her, as they are all of noble birth. But Natalia is the most powerful of all the water mages, and surpasses everybody’s teachings. For that reason, she sees a future of exploitation for herself, so she rushes to escape in the middle of the night.

Both Athgar and Natalia are awestruck by the big city, and they arrive within days of each other. Natalia arranges a hotel room, and several new dresses, hoping to attract a wealthy noble to hire her. Athgar finds a room that he shares with dozens of other people, and he stupidly leaves his stuff out of reach, so it’s no surprise at all that it gets stolen. Chasing after the thief, he ends up in an alley where Natalia is being attacked. He tries to save her, but she incapacitates all of her attackers, and him in the process. Realizing her mistake, she brings him to her room. Of course they fall in love and have off-screen sex, which Athgar references several times later on, brand new to the concept, apparently.

We find out about the knights and the church in brief bursts and spurts, which did not feel natural. With one brief conversation, Athgar decides he can find out what happened to his village by going south where the knights have their stronghold. Of course he finds the culprits there, by the end, implausible as that seems.

The journey down the river was rather enjoyable, except where Natalia can’t think of raising the water level in the river (like she did in the bath) to get the ship unstuck. My favorite part came when the pirates attacked, and both Natalia and Athgar got to use their magic together. It was so obvious that Athgar could strike the pirate ships, but his inexperience showed, in that it wasn’t as easy as it probably should have been. Natalia uses her magic to move the ship through still waters, then freezes the water to allow a bridge people could walk on to get back to the ship. I find it shallow of character that being a water mage, she uses ice instead of water almost all the time.

In the southern city, where they go to visit the archives (looking for a knight with a long scar across his face –not much to go on), and are betrayed by their hostess. They were so suspicious in her house, even exiting through the windows, that it was no wonder that she turned them in. I don’t understand why Athgar was so cagey about his past or his search, though I understand why Natalia wanted to remain anonymous. While learning about magic at the academy, she wasn’t taught anything about the outside world. Surely being assigned to a house or family there should have been courses on how to behave, and what to expect from the people who would be calling on her, or those trying to take advantage. It’s hard to believe she could be so na´ve. Athgar at least has an excuse, living in an isolated village and being taken in by the orcs.

It turns out that the city of archives is a merchant-controlled society that encourages slavery, allowing the pirates to operate in their river. I don’t know how that can be good for business, but I’ll go along with it. Learning of the scarred knight in the clergy headquarters, they hatch a plan to search the building, but are discovered, and a fire-and-water fight takes place, nearly killing Athgar. There is something going on behind the scenes where the new head of the water-mage academy insists on neutralizing Natalia. Plot to be continued, I expect.

They also set a trap for the pirates, exposing a merchant vessel to the danger, while attacking the pirates when they come out to get slaves. Athgar finds an old friend from his village, but the fire he sets to kill the pirates gets out of control, and the vessel sinks, killing even the slaves. But Athgar doesn’t seem too bent out of shape about it because he hears news of his sister, who is still alive.

Their clergy friend helps smuggle them out of the city, where they plan to go after Athgar’s sister.

Despite the weakness of some of their actions, I did kind of like the two main characters. Unfortunately, the writing style wasn’t too enjoyable, which made it more difficult to read.

 
   

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