The Element of Fire by Martha Wells. ★★★1/2
The Element of Fire is Martha Wells debut fantasy novel, which is she put up for free online after it became hard to find in the US. While I don’t think it’s the best Martha Wells novel I’ve read, it’s still an enjoyable read. The Element of Fire focuses on court politics in Il-Rien, a setting similar to 16th century European courts. Urbain Grandier, a powerful master of sorcery, is plotting against the throne of King Roland, who mainly leaves ruling to his mother, the Dowager Queen Ravenna. Meanwhile, Kade, the illegitimate daughter of the former king and a fairy queen, has also arrived in Il-Rien.
My favorite part of The Element of Fire is the characterization of the central characters, in particular the two leads. The narrative alternates between the POV of Kade and Thomas Boniface, Captain of the Queen’s Guard. Kade manages to have something of the otherworldly Fey about her while still remaining a fully formed and intelligent lead. Thomas, Ravenna’s former lover, is dutiful and also has a wonderful wit. Ravenna was another stand out character for me. She is forceful and determined, an older woman who still remains at the center of power.
While I liked the main characters, I did have some trouble keeping track of the secondary characters, especially in the first half of the novel. There’s still some plot points there I think I missed because of it. The Element of Fire begins in the middle of the action, which was exciting but meant that it took me a while to be able to figure out what was going on.
While there weren’t any gaping holes in the setting, it felt a bit bare boned. There wasn’t the imagination you can see in many of Wells’ other settings, and it didn’t have the atmosphere of The Death of the Necromancer. The fairy elements especially could have used more exploration.
While it could be slow moving in parts, I really enjoyed The Element of Fire for its complex characterization and likable leads. If you’re unfamiliar with Martha Wells, I’d suggest trying one of her later books first, but The Element of Fire is still a book I would recommend.