Fires of the Faithful by Naomi Kritzer. ★★★★
I really enjoyed this book, but I have a very hard time describing it. There’s a number of different things going on, but it’s probably best to start with the back cover blurb:
For sixteen-year-old Eliana, life at her conservatory of music is a pleasant interlude between youth and adulthood, with the hope of a prestigious Imperial Court appointment at the end. But beyond the conservatory walls is a land blighted by war and inexplicable famine and dominated by a fearsome religious order known as the Fedeli, who are systematically stamping out all traces of the land’ s old beliefs. Soon not even the conservatory walls can hold out reality. When one classmate is brutally killed by the Fedeli for clinging to the forbidden ways and another is kidnapped by the Circle–the mysterious and powerful mages who rule the land–Eliana can take no more. Especially not after she learns one of the Circle’ s most closely guarded secrets.
Now, determined to escape the Circle’ s power, burning with rage at the Fedeli, and drawn herself to the beliefs of the Old Way, Eliana embarks on a treacherous journey to spread the truth. And what she finds shakes her to her core: a past destroyed, a future in doubt, and a desperate people in need of a leader–no matter how young or inexperienced….
The blurb is largely accurate but potentially misleading. I’ll get to why in a minute.
What I really liked about Fires of the Faithful was Eliana. She’s a wonderful protagonist. She’s brave and smart, even though she’s coming from the Conservatory, where she was kept isolated from the rest of the world. She’s willing to help other people even if it causes danger for herself.
The back blurb doesn’t mention it, but Eliana’s lesbian. It’s not the focus of the novel or a coming out story, it’s just something that she herself realizes towards the end of the book. Since she doesn’t realize it herself in Fires of the Faithful, there’s not a romance plot, but it sounds like she’ll get together with her love interest in the next book.
This should be obvious since the blurb says she’s at a conservatory, but music plays a large part in the book. Eliana’s violin is with her constantly, and she cares deeply about music. Music also ties on to the religion in the book and to the magic system. The Old Way songs sound beautiful and are hinted to be the basis of another magic system.
What the back blurb also doesn’t quite say is how large a role religion plays (maybe you were supposed to assume it from the title?). The kingdom resolutely follows the New Way, and the Spanish Inquisition like Fedeli resolutely and violently smother any traces of the Old Way. After her friend Belle converts to the Old Way and is killed for it by the Fedeli, Eliana starts to see a lot more of the religion and eventually converts to it for largely political reasons.
What might make some readers run for the hills is that the Old Way (minus the music and magic bits) is almost exactly Christianity. Seriously, even most of the names are the same or very similar. More on that in the next paragraph or so, but I need to add that it’s not proselytizing. If there was any message on religion, it was the necessity of tolerating other beliefs. There’s sympathetic characters of both the New and Old Ways, and there’s one scene in particular where the priestesses of each both bless the child of an interfaith couple.
According to the author bio, Kritzer has a BA in religion. It shows – I think what she was exploring in Fires of the Faithful is how religions change, grow upon, and supplant each other. For instance, the New Way takes some from the Old Way, and how the Old Way is now thought of reflects the New Way (for instance, God is referred to as female, presumably an influence of the Lady from the New Way).
What I don’t entirely understand is why she used Christianity to explore these ideas in a fantasy setting. The obvious answer I see is that her world’s based upon medieval Italy, of which Christianity would be part and parcel. But given how much else is different (the cities, the New Way, the magic), keeping this one element doesn’t make sense. Was she keeping it to highlight the influences of the New Way? Or how little the characters actually know of the Old Way’s theology?
Anyway, I really liked it, especially as it was a departure from the norm. It felt like a YA fantasy, but it didn’t use the almost mandatory elements I see in all the others. I’m not sure who exactly I’d recommend it to – YA fantasy readers in general, anyone looking for a good female protagonist, people who like music, someone looking for a lesbian protagonist or a book exploring religion. It hits a lot of points.