The Fires of Vengeance by Evan Winter
Orbit, pb, £8.49
By John C. Adams
Genre fiction needs to be more diverse. There. I’ve said it.
Evan Winter was born in England to South American parents but grew up in Africa, close to his ancestors’ historic territory. That makes for a fascinating mix of influences, and I was very much looking forward to immersing myself in a fantasy novel that includes a greater variety of cultures than is often the case.
‘The Fires of Vengeance’ is Winter’s second novel and the second book in ‘The Burning’ series, the first being ‘The Rage of Dragons’. I hadn’t read the first book, so I was coming to this series anew. ‘The Fires of Vengeance’ began with an essential recap of the events that concluded the prequel. This was inserted into the early pages as exposition to bring the reader up to speed. My personal preference is for a brief summary before the action opens, and I felt that the mixing in of quite a lot of detailed exposition with the opening action was quite confusing.
As the book opens, Tau is appointed champion to Queen Tsiora, whose reign is under attack from her sister. His immediate order is to kill the warlord who threatens to prevent their forces from retaking Palm City. He’s also reeling from the deaths of his father and lover, which took place in the prequel. The warlord is killed, but the son is left alive to escape and harbour vengeance for a counterattack. Meanwhile, the nobles become more restless in their criticism of Tsiora’s rule, which looks increasingly vulnerable even after she executes two of her most vocal critics.
Tau helps regroup Tsiora’s forces to prepare to defend her territory against an expected attack from their main enemy, the Xiddeen. At the same time, the structured order of their own society makes for resentments lower down the pecking order and arrogance towards the top. Tau’s modest background makes him a target for much resentment as his courage and good moral sense bring him closer to the queen’s innermost circle and enables him to gain her trust.
Although clearly a fantasy novel on the surface, this book was fascinating for its realism. Dragons and demons are sufficiently present to mark this as fantasy, yet they are very much in the background behind the central focus of ‘The Fires of Vengeance’, which was on the character of the hero, Tau. That is more common in fantasy romance since romance is inherently a realist endeavour. It is unusual to find an action-based fantasy novel that provides as much realism as this one does. I liked this, partly because it was quite unexpected, and for me, it was the strongest aspect of the novel. Fantasy is a broad genre that can easily accommodate the detailed worldbuilding of a George R R Martin and the focus on romance of a Storm Constantine or a Cinda Williams Chima. There is also plenty of room for a well-written story of character, grief and family relationships, which is precisely what Winter provides so deftly here.
With the tight focus on character, essential in a perceptive portrait of a brave and complex hero, there was less space set aside for worldbuilding and cultural detail than would be typical in a fantasy novel. This is what I would have liked to see more of from ‘The Fires of Vengeance’, but I still enjoyed the novel very much.
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