December 12, 2019
(+++) MIX AND REMIX
Heartstone #3: Flamebringer. By Elle Katharine White. Harper Voyager. $16.99.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that as fantasy sequences progress, they will inevitably begin to sound more and more like each other. And thus, although Elle Katharine White’s Heartstone trilogy opened with a novel that was balanced (somewhat uneasily) between traditional fantasy tropes and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and its tropes, her second series entry, Dragonshadow, began to lean more heavily on standard fantasy-world elements. And the final book in the group, Flamebringer, moves even more strongly in that direction.
This is not necessarily bad. White’s original concept, although clever, made the opening book less attractive to lovers of sword-and-sorcery novels than it might otherwise have been – it was really aimed at people who, like White herself, enjoy such fantasies and Austen’s work in equal measure. Dragonshadow moved further from Austen and more toward the innumerable other post-Tolkien heroic fantasies of recent decades, giving up some of its conceptual originality but making for a more tightly structured and convincing adventure novel. In Dragonshadow, White really started to develop her characters within their own world, with fewer references to the one from which she originally brought them forth.
And in Flamebringer, the separation from Austen is even more evident. The intense attraction between heroic protagonists Alastair and Aliza remains as strong as ever. Here, though, White engages in the redoubtable task of bringing forth all sorts of fantasy-novel traditions and grafting them onto the Heartstone story. There is, for example, a secondary character who practically steals every scene in which he appears through both his appearance and his name: Mephistrophomorphinite Ignaat. He is a gargoyle with “a grinning, malformed head with goblin ears and a nose like a bat’s” and, perhaps inevitably, eyes that “burned like live coals.” Of course he is hostile to Alastair and Aliza when they first meet him as they seek the help of dragons to counter a burgeoning evil that threatens the world – and of course he later becomes helpful as well as amusing. Readers will likely wish White had included more scenes with him.
As for that growing evil, Alastair and Aliza get hints of it from the usual-in-fantasy isolated, keep-to-themselves characters who are unendingly hostile to outsiders but who accept the protagonists in their midst temporarily, just long enough to provide a key to the book’s plot: “The Eskatha came from the first things the gods shaped from emptiness, the four great guardian spirits bound to the world at its birth. We call them Elementari, for their true names were banished in the breaking…” But these things cannot be, protests Alastair, for if they existed, those of all species who preserve knowledge of times long past would know of them. Ah, but this is heroic fantasy, in which when nothing is known, that indicates truth: “Telling, this silence, is it not? …[D]ragonkind has chosen to forget. …Humans are no different. The Oldkind who do remember do not speak of them anymore, for the Elementari rose against their makers, and for that, they were unmade. Broken without remedy, their sundered spirits faded into the wood and water, stone and storm.”
Well, not quite, for if that were true, there would be no overarching evil for the heroics of Flamebringer to overcome. But there is, and it appears in the form of the mysterious Silent King of Els, who has gone unseen outside his own land for hundreds of years and who, it turns out, has spent all those centuries accruing power and evil that, wonder of wonders, are overcome by Aliza in the space of a few minutes. The climax is, in fact, a bit of a disappointment, for although some cared-for characters meet their end and suitable tears are suitably shed, the notion that an essentially all-powerful, essentially eternal being that has brooded and nourished its evil and grown its power for many centuries can be vanquished so quickly (if admittedly painfully) is somewhat unsatisfying. A little more apocalyptic terror would have been helpful.
And there are some inelegances in White’s writing and plotting that may distract readers from her main points. On the writing side, for example, the slight humor involving the gargoyle is intentional, but amusement is not the aim when, in the midst of Aliza’s deadly battle with a fearsome ghoul, White writes that the ghoul’s “mouth fell open in a ghoulish grin.” Well, yes…what other sort of grin would you expect? More significantly, the plot makes much of the reactions, or lack of them, of the actual gods of this world, which seem curiously impotent not only to stop the great evil that they themselves created but also to provide any clear guidance or direction to the good and righteous characters. The very end of Flamebringer is the only time that a god actually does anything, and what it does is so minor in the grand scheme of the trilogy that it seems almost laughable, despite the seriousness with which White paints the scene and the neat-wrapping-up element that the occurrence represents. Flamebringer is true to the world building and character development of the Heartstone trilogy, and readers who stayed with the first two books will find it a mostly satisfactory wrapup, with even a few Pride and Prejudice reminiscences and echoes at the end. So as a genre novel within a delimited genre trilogy, Flamebringer is just fine. It is, however, missing most of the Austen-derived elements that originally made it seem as if White would push the boundaries of heroic fantasy a bit harder than she actually pushes them.