Why did I read it: I’ve been meaning to read this for ages now. And I couldn’t resist a book about wine magic.
How I would rate it: 4.5 out of 5 stars.
Once, all power in the Vin Lands was held by the prince-mages, who alone could craft spellwines, and selfishly used them to increase their own wealth and influence. But their abuse of power caused a demigod to break the Vine, shattering the power of the mages. Now, fourteen centuries later, it is the humble Vinearts who hold the secret of crafting spells from wines, the source of magic, and they are prohibited from holding power.
But now rumors come of a new darkness rising in the vineyards. Strange, terrifying creatures, sudden plagues, and mysterious disappearances threaten the land. Only one Vineart senses the danger, and he has only one weapon to use against it: a young slave. His name is Jerzy, and his origins are unknown, even to him. Yet his uncanny sense of the Vinearts’ craft offers a hint of greater magics within — magics that his Master, the Vineart Malech, must cultivate and grow. But time is running out. If Malech cannot teach his new apprentice the secrets of the spellwines, and if Jerzy cannot master his own untapped powers, the Vin Lands shall surely be destroyed.
Review: While I think I’m more the type who seeks out action-packed books the same way I lean towards action-packed films, I’d be among the first to admit that there’s something awesome about a book that tells a terrific story in a quietly compelling way. Flesh and Fire is just such a book. Instead of loud battle scenes and broad scopes, Gilman provided her reader with an intensely indepth look at a young man transitioning from slave to Vineart in a society that has squandered away a lot of opportunities, both magical and mundane, only to become bound by its rigid traditions, rules, and roles.
The world-building and magic system in Flesh and Fire was really fascinating. Writing about people who rely on wine magic could have easily resulted in a really goofy or bizarre story, but Gilman managed to have it make sense in a real serious and terrific way. I loved learning how wine magic works alongside Jerzy and I am really, really enthralled with his world as well as his place in it. I also liked the real uncertainty between what is acceptable for a Vineart to do and what is dangerous magic not to be used. Religion was handled in a subtle, mature way and remained an important component of the world but not a major focus in the lives of the book’s main characters.
Jerzy is definitely a fictional someone who will wind up on my list of Favorite Characters. I loved watching him grow from a scared slave boy to an uncertain young man who is well on his way to discovering that he’s actually a force to be reckoned with. I was really concerned once it was revealed that he’d had traumatic experiences with male slavers and the like, but I was so pleased by how well Gilman presented and handled the situation throughout the book. And I really, really hope that the Vineart War Trilogy remains as free of romance as possible because I was so pleased by how great the book was without it. I don’t mind there’s some love brewing in the background between Jerzy’s friends, but I am keeping my fingers crossed that Jerzy is not destined to stumble into Romance Territory where his emotional scarring can be soothed away by the love of a good woman.
There aren’t any other major characters to speak of, but there’s a great cast of secondary characters. Vineart Malech in particular provided an interesting dynamic as he acts as both Master and mentor. I loved watching him grow to care for Jerzy in spite of himself, and I found it really sad that there was no way for him to really articulate any of that paternal affection. The fact that he also had a stone dragon to talk to was just another point in Malech’s favor. I’m still not exactly sure how much I liked having an important plotline crammed into the last 100 pages since it felt a bit out of place given the rest of the book. At the same time, I’m definitely curious to see what it all amounts to. Besides, I do want to watch Jerzy grow and he couldn’t do if he never left home or never made friends.
In conclusion, an enchantingly enjoyable book rich in detail and in unique twists. Fans of character-driven Fantasy or readers seeking something along the lines of Jacqueline Carey will really enjoy this book. I for one can’t wait to make the time to read The Weight of Stone. One word of caution though. If you pick up a copy of Flesh and Fire, I would suggest keeping a bottle of wine on stand-by. Or maybe just some grapes. You’ll probably be craving one or the other after the first few chapters.