The Element of Fire is Martha Wells’ first published novel, and the first book in the Ile-Rien series. I hadn’t read it before, because I’ve read the Ile-Rien books in about as out-of-order a sequence as you can manage. I don’t recommend this approach.
At any rate, The Elements of Fire introduces us to the realm of Ile-Rien, which I read as based on France, or possibly the Holy Roman Empire, while Bisra is Spain. I’m using ‘based on’ very loosely here–it’s a flavor more than anything else. Not necessarily specific names, but the way they are put together. Not necessarily specific instances, but attitudes and assumptions. There’s also a fayre world which we get to see for a brief and tantalizing few moments. I loved the worlds Wells creates here and the fact that they’re so infused with a sense of real culture and history and thought. It’s not quite as developed as in the later books, but it’s still great. I’m also guessing at time period as late Renaissance/whatever the Stuart period is called when you’re not talking about England.
Wells also does limited third person narration from several points of view here, which definitely seems to be her favorite way of structuring narration. This tactic is one I approve of, as I find it far less annoying that multiple first person narrators but also appreciate the way it allows different viewpoints. Wells does this really well, mostly sticking to two main characters, but occasionally branching into a more minor character who we might not otherwise understand (key one here is Roland’s section towards the end of the book which provides a glimpse into the way he thinks and feels).
I liked Thomas and Kade a lot, though I felt that Kade’s emotional coming-to-terms-with-her-past could have been strengthened and deepened just a little (not to make it the main focus, which it’s not). I like that they’re both characters who care about things outside of their personal needs/desires. They’re both committed to something that’s bigger than them, but not in a simply self-abnegatory way. This is one of my favorite things and I love it when it’s done well. Wells clearly has a gift and affinity for this kind of character, because they show up in almost all of her books.
As far as the plot goes, we jump right in at the beginning, with a little discreet housebreaking/hostage rescue operation, and it doesn’t really let up after that. Part of what I appreciate about the book is the fact that even though things keep happening so quickly that I almost felt tired for the characters, I never felt like it was plot-driven to the detriment of character development or thoughtful writing. It’s also a complex plot, with lots of different characters and motivations.
So in general, I liked this one lots: I found most of the characters very sympathetic and I liked the political aspect of it (politics in fantasy books are definitely one of my Things). It wasn’t a jaw-droppingly awesome read, but it was great to get more of a sense of the history of Ile-Rien, which I hope will help fill out the world a bit when I re-read the other books.
Book source: public library
Book information: Tor, 1993