Flesh and Fire
Laura Anne Gilman
Simon & Schuster Adult (496 pp, $9.99, September 2010 (originally October 2009))
Reviewed by E.E. Knight
Laura Anne Gilman is a fantasy author I not only read, but teach. The reason is simple: when I’m giving a class in the writing of science fiction and fantasy, I rarely know what to say about magic. I point the students toward authors who handle it better than I ever could, and try to explain why I think it works for an audience in those books.
Maybe I’m just reading the wrong fantasists, but I find only a few authors whose use of magic interests and pleases me. One of those is Gilman. In her urban fantasy Retrievers series, her heroine used something called “Current” – more or less the ability to manipulate electricity to get it to win items and influence people. But it was a quirky power and her heroine could accidentally get into difficulty if she wasn’t very careful with how she used it (blowing out airport x-ray scanners and such). Creative, intriguing, and just plausible enough for me to suspend disbelief, something that rarely happens when the hero just fires off a few latinesque magic words and points his finger.
Gilman, in her new Vineart War series, outdoes her usual crafty performance and creates a grape-based magic system that is nothing short of inspired. We learn, through an elaborate centennial history, that there is a powerful group of magicians on this world called the Vinearts. They create Spellwines – vintages that may have a variety of pharmacological effects, or control the weather, or create terribly hot fires. Thanks to the Spellwines the social system of Gilman’s “Lands Vin” have become peaceful, and perhaps a bit ossified. A young field slave named Jerzy, who knows a thing or two about hardship, shows an unusual talent for the Vineart’s craft and comes to the attention of a master Spellwine creator named Master Malech.
While the Lands Vin are far from perfect, it is a pleasant enough society, but just as young Jerzy is coming of age there is an unusually bad year – plagues of parasites, out of season beasties, and other threats to the sacred vines spelling trouble for the Vinearts and the system they support.
I loved this magical fetish, grape harvest to corking. Gilman, like many authors, has knocked around at several different professions, and one of them was wine sales. Her education shows and certainly added to mine. It shall keep company with Tim Power’s The Drawing of the Dark (with magical beer) on my shelf. (So, when is the great Single Malt Scotch fantasy appearing, I wonder?)
With the herculean task of creating this world done and the readers familiar with the magical workings of the Lands Vin, I’m looking forward to the next volume where Gilman doesn’t have quite so much heavy lifting to do and can concentrate more on plot and furthering her characters. If you’re seeking an expertly developed fantasy world that is out of the ordinary genre run, has some likeable characters and a bit of an education on winemaking, Flesh and Fire is well worth your time and money. This volume is just the Beaujolais Nouveau of the series, I can’t wait to see what ferments will be bound and bottled down the road.
A slightly different version of this review originally appeared in Black Gate Magazine #14