Bursts of Fire is an intriguing YA Fantasy read. In her debut novel Susan Forest tackles a number of important issues: addiction, self-harm, fear of change, abandonment, religious oppression. Each of these is dealt with in the larger context of war and who to trust. It’s a coming-of-age story that doesn’t pull any punches.
One of the things I really appreciated about Forest’s novel is the way it deals with some hard issues. This is not literary fantasy by any means, but it is guided by certain themes and topics. These work together to engage the reader and make the characters feel authentic. If anything, there were a couple times when I think the sheer number of issues Forest tackles meant that not as much time could be given to any one individual issue. Regardless, all of these are set within a fascinating and complex world. There are six kingdoms who have lived at peace for generations. Each kingdom has a line of kings and a line of magiel. The magiel use special prayer stones to enter the heavens with their respective king and retrieve death tokens for their citizens. When someone dies, their death token is placed in their mouth and this allows them to pass peacefully to the afterlife. Failing to have a death token means the person would be cursed to wander the world as a ghost. King Artem and his magiel aren’t content with this situation, however, and bring war upon the land. The religious system is unique and interesting and I love the relationship and interplay between the magic and religion. Speaking of the magic in this world, there are essentially two types. Worldling magic, which involves spellbooks and ingredients, and Magiel magic - which allows a magiel to bend time, bringing an old bush back to life, for instance. I found myself captivated by the complexities that this system introduced.
There were several things that didn’t work well for me, however. First and foremost among these was that I simply didn’t connect with any of the characters. Our main characters are three magiel sisters and Huwen, the son of King Artem. I found all of them to be more annoying than anything else, though toward the second half of the novel Meg did begin to grow on me, and to a lesser extent, so did Janat. This was not helped by the fact that the pacing was fairly slow for the first two thirds of the novel. By the time the end game kicked in things were moving along at a good clip, but it felt like there was quite a bit of setup, and this was particularly true in the first third of the novel. In addition to not connecting with the characters and finding the pacing slow, there were a couple plot holes in the novel. One of these relates to how King Artem was able to rapidly conquer five other kingdoms without them becoming aware that any of the others had been conquered until he showed up on their doorstep. To me, this was never explained satisfactorily and significantly impacted my engagement with and enjoyment of the novel.
An unique magic system and excellent world building make for a promising read. Unfortunately, the characters didn’t work for me and slow pacing and plot holes kept the novel from living up to the promise of the setting.
Review by Calvin Park
Bursts of Fire
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