An epic scifi fantasy written across planets and systems. A world where gods and curses have real power. A story of political and personal betrayal and heartbreak, as well as friendship and love. A Spark of White Fire (Skyhorse, 2018) weaves all of these strands together into a complex and engaging story.
I read this one because I heard about it from Mishma at Chasing Faerytales and it sounded really interesting. And having read it, I have one question: why are more people not talking about this one? It ticks so many boxes of things I love, including a sentient spaceship and a trickster god. I had some more thoughts about this on Twitter, but it boils down to being a bit frustrated with the way we all talk about the same few hyped books.
That’s probably too big a topic to really address in the middle of a review, so going back to A Spark of White Fire! This was a book I just enjoyed reading a lot. Esmae, the main character, might err a bit on the side of hyper-competence–but I kind of feel that if we have a billion hyper-competent male characters in the world of literature, it’s nice to have a girl who’s super good at things too. And it also made sense in this context with both the gods’ gifts and the warrior culture of Kali.
Throughout the book it felt like Mandanna was using some of the usual beats of YA political fantasy–secret identities, last minute betrayals, being torn between family and love–but approaching them in a very fresh way. The story feels like it stands on its own, even though I could see similar patterns to other books when I looked for them. The way it crosses genre lines was fascinating too–there are fantastical elements, like gods and curses, superhuman gifts that act like magic. But it also takes place in space, with a sentient unbeatable spaceship and some interesting approaches to human settlements. It’s a fascinating example of what can happen when two genres are woven together really well.
I also loved the setting and culture, and the way the physicality of the world was drawn. It’s a sweeping story, moving across a couple of different settings, and it would be easy for them to all blend together a bit. But for me the prose and descriptions were vivid enough that this didn’t happen. And I really appreciated what felt like a depth of worldbuilding. Maybe because this story is based on the part of the Mahabharata, there was just a great sense of a rich and epic background.
I haven’t said much about Esmae herself, but she is the heart of the book. I thought the balance between competence and mistakes was just right for me. She is smart and strategic, but there are things she doesn’t know, and sometimes her heart betrays her. I loved the relationship between Esmae and her spaceship Titania, and the way even that showed aspects of her character we wouldn’t have otherwise seen. She’s not a truly unreliable narrator, but we certainly see things through her eyes and so we only know what she’s willing to reveal.
All in all, for me this was an incredibly enjoyable read that felt both familiar and fresh. If you like twisty political scifi or fantasy, do check it out! I’d recommend it strongly to both Ann Leckie and Megan Whalen Turner or Elizabeth Wein fans.
Previously, on By Singing Light
Queen’s Thief Week: Myths in The Queen of Attolia (2012)
Jinx’s Magic by Sage Blackwood (2014)
Egg & Spoon by Gregory Maguire; Between Silk & Cyanide by Leo Marks (2015)
Making Without Context (2016)