Faren Miller reviews Brian Staveley
Brian Staveley acknowledges genre tradition, yet still finds ways to undermine it. The Providence of Fire starts with a flashback connected to the title, showing royal siblings Adare, Kaden, and Valyn as children whom their father has commanded to witness an Imperial Deed from the top of a very high tower. Their empress mother Sioan frets that, when ‘‘a normal ascent might span two days, with breaks along the way for rest and refreshment… the children were too small for this furious charge’’ – a half-night’s climb. The flaming city alarms her even more, as the glare ‘‘refracted through the glass walls’’ of the inner stairway yields to an unobstructed view: ‘‘from the impossible height of the tower’s top, the streets and canals of the city might have been lines etched on a map.’’ When the emperor declares, ‘‘Have them start another fire’’, Sioan desperately wishes ‘‘to spare her children the sight and the knowledge,’’ but it’s too late. Though Adare won’t inherit the Unhewn Throne (reserved for males), this eldest child is first to recognize the danger to the crowds of people running far below, and cries out to her father: ‘‘They’re trapped. You have to do something!’’ That’s not the kind of providence the emperor intends, when fighting fire with fire. He tells his wife, ‘‘They will not be ready to rule it… until they are willing to see it burn.’’
We return to the grown siblings, after their father’s murder and the tumultuous events in The Emperor’s Blades (reviewed in issue #636), to find Kaden and Valyn together on a mountainside far from the imperial palace where they spent their childhood. Though monks brought Kaden here to find an occult portal that should transport him home to wrest the throne from his enemies, he’s not keen on the task. When he tries to sneak a look at soldiers on the slopes below and Valyn drags him back, growling ‘‘Keep your head down, Your Radiance,’’ he’s flummoxed: ‘‘The title still sounded wrong, unstable and treacherous, like spring ice on a mountain tarn, the whole surface groaning even as it glittered, ready to crack beneath the weight of the first unwary foot.’’ That sense of dangerous changes under way (the outcome far from certain) stirs up emotions closer to unease or self-doubt than to the high ambition and dogged pursuit of revenge that drove protagonists in ancient epics and classic fantasy.
Heroes ain’t what they used to be, in outlook or in gender. Many of Staveley’s female characters – elite warriors from Valyn’s flying corps, a priestess’s daughter with unexpected abilities, possibly even avatars of goddesses (Young and Old) – are strong, irreverent women, unafraid to speak their minds. As Adare (runaway princess and former Finance Minister) continues on her own wayward quest, she hitches a ride and gains a new mentor in the form of an outrageous, road-wise crone. When first encountered, Nira – ‘‘a tiny, wizened woman, well into her eighth decade judging from the bone-white hair pinned up on the back of her head and the wrinkles etched into her weathered skin’’ – is dissing her equally ancient brother, mincing no words: ‘‘[I]f our mother hadn’t’a squoze us out’a the same fuckin’ cunt, I’d knock ya on that fool fucking head of yours, take the cart my own self, and have done with ya.’’
A wild tangle of plotlines, where major characters and their significant companions veer off in all directions and undergo various traumas, breaks crucial events into fragments we must piece together to get their full impact. In Chapter 20, the Sons of Light (priests of the goddess Intarra, whom Adare wants as allies) cast her into an Everlasting Well of flame, with stunning results. The timeless moment – which begins with ‘‘Blinding light. Perfect black. Ringing like a million mouths, screaming, singing. Body instantly and utterly gone’’ – boils down to this: ‘‘Gone everything but a single voice… a woman’s voice but greater than any woman, as great as creation itself, uttering a single, ungainsayable syllable: Win.’’
When Adare’s thread resumes in Chapter 22, she is lying in bed, battling partial amnesia while an eye-witness tries to describe what struck her: ‘‘It was… brighter. Sharper. More than natural, somehow.’’ This supernatural lightning left its mark, but we don’t see the result until Chapter 24 (near the book’s midpoint), as she explores that ‘‘intricate tracery of red scar,’’ the ‘‘thousand ramifying twists and whorls snaking around her arms and torso, down her legs and up her neck like tiny red vines spreading into her hair.’’ Though the pain is tolerable, ‘‘when Adare tried to get out of bed, she felt her legs turn to water and her mind fade, all thought blotted out in a great wash of light.’’
The Providence of Fire has far too many big moments, recurring motifs and important themes to tackle here, and there’s a final volume still to come, so I won’t try to go beyond Adare’s divine command and partial metamorphosis, since they have things in common with the opening scene of Shadow.