I firmly believe that nothing, nothing is more important in a book than the protagonist. A well written hero can carry the weakest of plots, elevate the plainest of supporting cast and make an otherwise average book into something special. Laura Anne Gilman’s ‘Flesh and Fire’ proves all to well that the reverse is definitely not true.
The concept of Flesh and Fire is really cool, and handled originally. A few select men, called Vinearts, can coax magic from grapes and craft potent spell wines. Once they used their exclusive magic to gain power, but now there are strict laws that stop Vinearts from being able to hold positions of power or influence.
Jerzy, a young slave, is found to have the abilities of vineart, and so is risen from his position to become an apprentice to the Vineart Master Malach.
There’s a lot to potentially like about this book. I’m not a fan of non-fiction, but having said that I really like it when a book teaches me things. When an author has clearly researched the topic of the book extensively and the knowledge just shines through. So it is with Flesh and Fire and wine making. I’m not saying that upon finishing the book you could go out and craft your own vintage, but I found the various minutiae of wine making that the book explores to be really interesting.
If only the protagonist, Jerzy, had been at least half as interesting. But sadly, he is not. There’s nothing to him. I mean, this kid has been a slave all of his life, until one day he gets yanked from the fields and becomes an apprentice to the man who owns him. A situation fraught with potential angst and conflict one would think. Jerzy never feels any kind of resentment towards Master Malach. His time as a slave was brutal and hard, and yet he never attempts to help his fellow slaves or even really thinks about them as being more as slaves. The explanation given for this is that the harshness of slavery is needed to make the abilities of a Vineart develop. Which I get, and should have made for some really fascinating dynamics between the once slave Vineart masters and the one slave apprentices. But it barely gets touched upon, and a large source of potential tension just goes to waste.
(And why are all the Vinearts men? The idea of a female Vineart is never broached, not even an offhand comment to explain why there are none. The silence on the matter bugged me more than a half ass excuse explaining it would have.)
I guess in a lot of ways Jerzy never stops being a placid slave. He does what he’s told and and he rarely moves the plot himself. The other characters act and react, think and plot and make decisions, Jerzy just lets the currents they create move him about. There’s only one scene I can think of where Jerzy uses his initiative and impacts the plot. That’s pretty unacceptable for a main character, in my opinion.
The secondary characters are much better done than Jerzy. The young trader Ao was a breath of fresh air, and I found his trader outlook to be really interesting. I also liked Mauhalt, a nobleman’s daughter who looks like she’s going to get a kick ass character arc normally reserved more male characters. (Which just bring me back to the question of female Vinearts, and the lack thereof).
Jerzy’s passivity might have been easier to take if not for the fact that this book feels like it’s all setup. Things don’t really get rolling until literally the last fifty pages or so, whereupon the book ends on a cliffhanger. I suspect the second book will be much better than the first. If nothing else the plot appears to have actually started, and in the final pages of the book I developed some slight hope that Jerzy was about to actually take charge.
Normally I wouldn’t even give the next book a try based on the serious flaws in this one, but Laura Anne Gilman is clearly a very capable writer and the series does have potential. If she turns Jerzy’s character around then his actions in the first boom will become the first part of an impressive character arc, and the ridiculously slow build of the plot would be forgivable. It still kinda sucks that you have to slog through a vaguely boring first volume to get to the good stuff.
I bought this book