PROS: An original idea for a magic system with incredible detail and mise en scene on the process of winemaking; worldbuilding in spades.
CONS: The ending is a little too disjointed and loose; pacing might turn off some readers.
VERDICT: Justifiably nominated for a Nebula Award in 2009, a traditional fantasy novel that is an exemplar of the genre.
Magic systems in a lot of secondary world fantasy novels are a dime a dozen. Oftentimes, they are variations and ringing on the changes on themes and ideas seen a double dozen times before. Rarely are there truly new ideas that make a reader, and some writers, sit up and think “Why didn’t I think of that idea before?”
Laura Anne Gilman has managed the trick. Better known for her Retrievers and PUPI urban fantasy novels and stories set in an alternate present where magicians keep their powers from the general public, she has other arrows in her quiver. As an admitted oenophile, it is not surprising that she would come up with a new source and paradigm for magic: wine.
Flesh and Fire is the first in her Vineart War trilogy and is the story of Jerzy. It’s a secondary world, where ruling mages centuries ago had their temporal and arcane power neutered by one of the Gods of this universe. Now, magic is conveyed through the cultivation of grapes and processing of those grapes into wine. Not all wine is spellwine, there is plenty of vin ordinaire as well, but the vinearts rely on spellwines to perform feats of magic, or allow others to do so.
There are hints that even with the crippling of magic from its former heights, that there are secrets yet to be revealed about the magic of this world, too.
Flesh and Fire is mainly the story of Jerzy (and I learned from the author, is pronounced “yehr-sehe”, not a “Jersey” pronunciation). Jerzy is a vineyard slave who displays a potential to be a Vineart, and after testing by his master, the Vineart, Malech, begins his long, laborious and meticulously detained training. In the process of this training, Gilman’s research and love of wine and the creation of wine fuses and melds with character uncovering and development. We learn about the creation of wine from start to finish, the rigorous and intensive training a Vineart undergoes, and learn not a little about Jerzy, Malech and those around them.
The Berengia, the region where Malech’s vineyard is located, seems inspired by Burgundy, France, and this fantastic transmogrified Burgundy is, although of far smaller scope, reminds me of how Guy Gavriel Kay takes historical countries and regions and remakes them into fantasy realms.
The amount of wine I drink is small, to be sure, but even I wished for a glass of vin ordinaire at my elbow in reading and soaking up the book:
The Master was everywhere. Every inch of the vineyard was his, and he was in every span of soil, every clutch of fruit.
He owned everything, controlled everything. Decided everything.
It was safer in the fields, no matter that your knees and shoulders ached, to only face the overseer and his whip, and not the Vineart. Like the rabbit sensing the tarn overhead, he froze, and prayed to remain unseen.
The grapes, sun warmed and ripe near to bursting, didn’t care who was watching them. Under the gentle pressure of the inflating bladders, the blood-red skins broke, and the crushed pulp and bits of skin dropped through the grate at the bottom, while the remnant of stem or leaf remained within the belly of the crusher.
Another set of slaves carried the bottom pan to a large wooden vat off to the side, and carefully poured the contents into a great wooden barrel. The pulp would–like the other crushings of the day–be taken into the shade of the vintnery itself, where, the boy knew vaguely, it would be run through one of the two presses, even larger than the crusher, to create the liquid mustus and, from there, somehow, magically, spellwine.
Working the press was the most dangerous job of Harvest. Even to breathe too deeply of the smell was not allowed to a slave. And yet, the desire he felt, to draw it into his lungs, to maybe feel the touch of the magic, was almost irresistible.
Ultimately, through some breaks in point-of-view, we start to sense that things in this world are changing, and not at all for the better. Given the sedentary, sessile nature of Vinearts and their magic, Jerzy’s expeditions away from the vineyard are transgressive, but also allow the plot to go forward, and Jerzy’s inexperience in the wider world fuels and is fodder for plot, especially when he is sent, in violation of all tradition, to learn from another, more urbanized Vineart.
As I mentioned above, the book was a finalist for the 2010 Nebula Award. I can see why. It’s not a doorstopper of an epic fantasy and at least this volume itself may sit in that grey area that has been discussed lately in between small scale Sword and Sorcery and the grander vistas of Epic Fantasy.
What didn’t work? Very little. The ending is a bit of a muddle, and is a bit too wide open at its conclusion. I appreciate and expect a book to be self-contained, even if it is the first novel in a series. Flesh and Fire is a little too clearly and obviously a first novel in the series that there isn’t a decent ending to this tale. It reminds me of the ending of the first movie of the Lord of the Rings in that regard. In fact, I suspect that this might be a case where one long narrative has been divided, like Gaul, into three parts, and this is merely a division point rather than proper ending.
Pacing is something that some readers might have trouble with. There is a sedate, slow, gradual and patient pace to a lot of the book, with some fevered pitches here and there. This is not a book to read for fast paced action that jumps off the page and readers looking for that are going to be frustrated quickly. As I have said in book reviews before, world building is what I strongly key on, and Flesh and Fire delivered that to keep me turning pages.
The other thing is — and it’s a personal peeve of mine that I have mentioned before — is that a map of this world is relly needed…especially since the ending of the book makes its clear that Jerzy’s adventures have only begun and we’re going to be going to new places. A map would help ground readers.
Even so, I am looking forward to starting Weight of Stone, the second novel in the series. Perhaps, even, with a glass of wine in hand. Perhaps the talented, oenophilic author might suggest an appropriate vintage?