From Unseen Fire by Cass Morris. Book Review

From Unseen Fire by Cass Morris
DAW, h/b, 400pp, £19.10
Reviewed by Megan Leigh (@m_leigh_g)

From Unseen Fire takes place in an alternate Rome where magic exists and is part of the political and class system. After the city’s dictator dies, the exiled and favoured politicians quickly assemble to form a new government. Latona and her sisters must navigate the political and romantic landscape that unfolds around them within their limited social sphere.

It’s unusual to read a novel that takes quite so long to get to the narrative hook as From Unseen Fire does. There’s a reason for that – if you can’t pique the reader’s attention early, you risk them putting the book down and never coming back to it. I struggled through the novel, unsure of why I was meant to care or what the book was really attempting to do until about the midway point.

In the first half of the novel, the most interesting elements are the references to the fallen dictator Ocello – how he ruled and what Latona did to survive. I wanted Morris to stop teasing me with hints at potentially interesting stories. It would not have been difficult to leverage this interesting past, especially when the imagination and story were clearly there. Morris could have included them as flashbacks, for instance, which would have added life to an otherwise very flat narrative set-up.

In creative writing programmes, they often tell writers to write the kind of book they want to read as your passion for that subject will seep onto the page. I have to wonder if From Unseen Fire was really the kind of book Cass Morris would want to read. For the most part, it is a blow-by-blow account of political machinations – an area I often find incredibly interesting. But the novel is dull. Both prose and dialogue are there to recount events in the driest possible way. This book is all ‘tell’.

The only time the prose comes alive is when Morris delves into the developing relationship between Latona and Sempronius. Admittedly, I’m a sucker for a good romance, but it did make me wonder whether Morris was even interested in the politics of the situation she had established given the difference in the quality of the prose when sexual tension was present.

For such a reported, detail-oriented style (this happened, then this, then…) it was surprising that the magic wasn’t given a clearer set-up. Interesting magic systems, for me, require a source of power, something that is finite, and a clearly defined scope for each power. Otherwise, the abilities of the magically-endowed appear limited only by the needs of the plot. That is very much the case here. Other than being heightened by emotions, the limitations of the powers were not clear, giving the author a get-out-of-jail-free card for whatever plot shenanigans she wrote the characters into.

Verdict: The reported prose style delivers a flat narrative, with little to compel the reader on until long after many would put the novel down.