Wells, Martha: Element of Fire, The (re-read)

Another re-read: Martha Wells’ The Element of Fire, in honor of finally finding an affordable used copy—when paperbacks are going for $50 and up, you know something is hard to find.

[ Ignore this if your name is not Nielsen Hayden. Patrick, I think I did e-mail you after Boskone about looking into reprinting this, but you’ve been busy, so, there, I’ve said it again. ]

This is such a great book. I briefly described the setup in the prior booklog entry, and mentioned that it opens with a bang with a rescue from an evil sorcerer’s house; I now discover that the first chapter is online, so you can go read it. Here’s a taste:

There was some soft cursing below as a dark lantern, its front covered by a metal slide to keep the light dimmed, was lit and passed upward. Thomas waited impatiently, feeling the darkness press in on him like a solid wall. He would’ve preferred the presence of another sorcerer besides Braun, the rest of the Queen’s Guard, and a conscripted city troop to quell any possibility of riot when the restive River Quarter neighborhood discovered it had a mad foreign sorcerer in its midst. But orders were orders, and if Queen’s Guards or their captain were killed while entering Grandier’s house secretly, then at least civil unrest was prevented. An inspired intrigue, Thomas had to admit, even if he was the one it was meant to eliminate.

As he reached down to take the shuttered lamp from Gideon something moved in the corner of his eye. Thomas dropped the lamp onto the table and studied the darkness, trying to decide if the hesitant motion was actually there or in his imagination.

The flicker of light escaping from the edges of the lamp’s iron cover touched the room with moving shadows. With the toe of his boot Thomas knocked the lantern slide up.

The wan candlelight was reflected from a dozen points around the unoccupied room, from lacquered cabinets, the gilt leather of a chair, the metallic threads in brocaded satin hangings.

Then the wooden cherub supporting the righthand corner of the table Thomas was standing on turned its head.

The action moves briskly throughout the book, tightly focused in both space (the castle and surrounding city) and time (just a few days). More, it’s strongly character-driven action—and what great characters they are. Here’s one of our dashing protagonists, the Captain of the Queen’s Guard, discussing the Dowager Queen:

“Don’t take me for a fool, Captain.”

“I don’t know what else to take you for.”

“You can take me for a man who did not acquire my power in a Queen’s bed.”

“Yes,” Thomas agreed. “In her bed, on the daybed in the anteroom, on a couch in the west solar of the Summer Palace, and other locations too numerous to mention, and if you had the slightest understanding of Ravenna at all, you would know that it never made one damn bit of difference as to whether she took my advice or not.”

I mentioned most of the things I like about this book in the last entry, but something I missed is an element of the worldbuilding, namely the interesting interaction between landlaw and courtlaw that informs the politics of the novel. Also, a re-read demonstrates how well an important plot twist is set up.

This sounds a little scattered, but I’m trying to avoid just re-typing the last entry. The important thing is that this book rocks, and everyone should (try to find a copy and) read it.

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