BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A ship captain finds that the repayment of an old debt of his family’s leads to intrigue and adventure revolving around high elemental magic, temple intrigue, Gryphons, Goddesses, and more.
PROS: Concentrated, distilled high magic universe; Andovar is a rich secondary world replete with adventure and a variety of interesting characters to populate it.
CONS: Too brisk of a book; pacing undermines a world readers might otherwise be interested in; some key things aren’t explained enough.
BOTTOM LINE: Both a modern and old-school high fantasy novel that only scratches the surface of a diverse and interesting world.
Passing through a large archway came a trio of creatures, filing one at a time, that were straight out of a storybook. A very lethal storybook–one of those where the children get eaten at the end.
Their forequarters were of a goshawk, if a goshawk could be the size of a horse–complete with white and navy feathers and slightly unhinged-looking red eyes. Their hindquarters were heavily built, something like a mountain lion. but with claws that did not retract, and dug divots into the packed earth of the courtyard as they walked. Massive wings shifted with each supple movement and their tufted ears flicked to and fro with alertness.
Gryphons. The holy books said that each of the goddesses kept them, but he’d never quite believed it. Now he understood the statues that decorated nearly every elemental shrine he had visited before. None of them did the creatures justice.
Dragons are great, but I adore Griffins. Or Gryphons. Half-bird of prey and Half-great cat, Griffins have always appealed to me as a mythological creature.
I was attracted to reading Erin Hoffman’s debut novel, Sword of Fire and Sea, by the promise of Gryphons. The fact that she is a long time video game developer — I had heard of “EA Spouse” via a friend who works in the same industry — peaked my interest. Finally, its being put out by Pyr, a publisher with an eye for quality and the kinds of books I want to read. This in total was more than enough to excite me to want to read the book.
Sword of Fire and Sea is set in a world that Hoffman has been developing for several years. Her story “Stormchaser, Stormshaper” is set in the same world of Andovar and features one of the characters, Ruby, that later appears in the novel itself.
Sword of Fire and Sea is, at its heart, a story of Change. Vidarian, owner and captain of the Empress’ Quest has his life and his world changed when faced with the repayment of an old debt his family has to a temple of Fire Priestesses. The repayment of this debt seems absurdly straightforward at first: transport a young fire priestess, Ariadel, through dangerous waters, to another temple. The trip soon becomes interesting, with encounters with Gryphons, mind-magic using mages, an encounter with an old friend, and more. Vidarian’s world not only undergoes rapid change, but it soon becomes clear that Vidarian himself has been chosen to be an agent of Change, and more than one faction is eager to make Vidarian make the choice in their favor, by force if necessary.
Sword of Fire and Sea is a short book, coming in at under 300 pages. The shortness of the book, and the sheer concentration of ideas, characters, and worldbuilding is both a strength and a weaknesses. Many fantasy novels, especially high fantasy ones, can suffer from bloat and padding, with far too much detail given, making the reading something of a slog. By comparison, Hoffman’s novel reads much like Lou Anders, her editor, compared her to: Michael Moorcock. The writing is crisp, sharp, and the text is replete with new and interesting things around every corner. Fire priestesses, gryphons, mind magic using mages, Goddesses, magic weapons, Air knights…Hoffman never lets up in the narrative in introducing us to her world and new characters. The strong elemental theme to the magic put me in mind of the Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher, and, yes, to Avatar the Last Airbender.
Going back to world building, Andovar does remind me of the world of Melniboné, and of the nameless world of John Brunner’s Traveller in Black — a world where magic still exists and is present, but is visibly and notably leaching out of the world. It also reminds me, especially since she is a videogame designer, of the Zork universe from Infocom, where the diminishment of a magical world to a more mundane world was a central theme running in the Zork and Enchanter games. It’s a world with a deep history to it that is often just hinted at, rather than shown in full glory, like, say, in the world of Steven Erikson’s Malazan Empire.
Although the plot is ostensibly Vidarian’s story, I think that the plot of the book revolves around the idea of Change. It’s a strong theme that runs through the book on a couple of levels, especially in the finale. For all that we hurry through Andovar to bring Vidarian to his destiny, the journey and the stops he makes make sense. The revelation of secret aspects to the world’s history is another major plot development and theme in the book as Vidarian realizes what he knows of the history of Andovar is, at best, incomplete.
The language and writing here is crisp and well done. I suspect that someone who has written dialogue and text for a number of videogames has long since had to learn how to hone her words carefully, and Hoffman does that. I did wonder, though, at the discordant figures of speech used by one character in particular, completely at odds with the words and diction of every other character we meet.
My major quarrel with the book is the double-edged nature of its very strength: the frantic and frenetic pace that Hoffman brings us through the world. While I appreciated that she did not write a 910 page doorstopper, I would have very much preferred more detail and a chance to learn more about the concepts, ideas and milieus in this world. We skitter across Andovar without getting a proper sense, in some cases, of the spot we have stopped at before heading off to some place new; or something new is dropped into the reader’s lap. There were a lot of unanswered “Whys” for me as a reader, enough that it became a drawback to the reading experience. I think, too, that this breakneck pace does mean that the characters are underdeveloped. I don’t mean to say that they are cardboard cutouts; its clear that from what we see that there is plenty more to these characters than they are shown, and I would have liked more visible development of the characters. The motivations for some characters more unusual actions were, in some cases, never quite made clear. While I heartily applaud “show, don’t tell”, I wanted more “show” than I sometimes received. It is clear, though, that while Hoffman does love her characters, she shows no compunctions about putting them through the wringer.
In the final analysis, Sword of Fire and Sea was something of an underdevelopment of enormous potential. While I was entertained and thoroughly amazed by the imagination that Hoffman brings to her writing and her world of Andovar while reading the book, the too-short execution continually left me wanting more than I actually received. Hoffman is a talent, there is no denying it. I would definitely like to see much more of the world of Andovar. I just hope that in future books of the Chaos Knight, she learns to use more of the lovely notes of the music of her writing.