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Fires of the Faithful / Turning the Storm
Naomi Kritzer
Bantam Spectra, 373 pages and 369 pages

Fires of the Faithful
Turning the Storm
Naomi Kritzer
Naomi Kritzer grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, a small lunar colony populated mostly by Ph.D.s. She moved to Minnesota to attend collect; after graduating with a BA in religion, she became a technical writer. She now lives in Minneapolis with her family. Fires of the Faithful and Turning the Storm are her first novels.

Naomi Kritzer's Website ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

This duology by new author Naomi Kritzer began life as a single book, and was split in two and expanded at the behest of the publisher. It seems appropriate, therefore, to review it as a single work.

Sixteen-year-old Eliana is a violin student at an isolated rural conservatory. Times are hard -- a recent war has laid waste to large parts of the Mestierese Empire, and there's famine in the south. But life at the conservatory is reasonably secure, and Eliana has hope, once her training is complete, that she'll land a prestigious appointment to one of the ensembles at the Imperial Court.

Then a new roommate, Mira, arrives, and Eliana's life is changed forever. Mira is strangely secretive about her background; even stranger, she can't make the witchlight that nearly everyone can summon, even if they're not trained mages of the Circle. Mira also has unusual knowledge. Every musician knows a few of the Old Way songs -- survivals of the heretical monotheistic Redentore religion, which has been supplanted by the Lady-centered Fedele faith -- but Mira knows a lot of them, and she offers to teach Eliana and Eliana's friends how to play them. There's a power to the forbidden Old Way music, and the more Eliana and her friends learn the more they're drawn to it, gathering and practicing in secret. But their experimentation goes too far. One of Eliana's friends becomes a Redentore apostate, and is discovered and punished when the Fedele inquisition pays an unexpected visit. Soon after, Mira's secret past catches up to her, and she's forcibly removed from the conservatory. Before she goes, she reveals to Eliana the terrible secret the Circle has been hiding since the war's end: it wasn't the retreating army of the Vesuviano Empire, sowing the fields with salt, that caused the withering of the land -- it was the magefires the Circle summoned to defeat them.

Shattered by this discovery and by the loss of Mira, confused as to her allegiances (Eliana has never been a particularly devout Lady-worshipper, and while the Redentore faith -- or more precisely, the ancient power of its music -- appeals to her, she's not yet ready to convert), Eliana decides to return home. But further horrors await her there, and she winds up eventually at one of the huge refugee camps the Mestierese Empire has established in the wastelands that lie along the Vesuviano border. Here, amid the seething discontent of people forced from their land by famine -- some of whom are members of a reform movement that already knows the truth about magefire, and many of whom are secret Redentori -- Eliana finds herself thrust unexpectedly into a leadership role. From this beginning springs a campaign to spread the truth about magefire, to overthrow the Circle, and to break the grip of the repressive Fedeli on the faith of the people.

The above is certainly the stuff of epic fantasy. But Kritzer dispenses with the heroic trappings in favor of a more realistic approach. Eliana isn't your typical epic protagonist, swept headlong toward a glorious destiny by forces beyond her control, but a practical girl with a wry sense of humor who stumbles and makes mistakes and frequently wonders what on earth she's doing (and sometimes, stubbornly, chooses not to go along). The peasant army she assembles isn't ultimately transformed by the nobility of its purpose into a legendary fighting force; it remains a ragtag bunch that, while reasonably inspired by the cause it follows, is just as concerned with petty personal squabbles and pointless rivalry between its various units. The reform movement, run by students and scholars, is self-absorbed and inefficient in a way that anyone who has ever joined a leftist student organization will recognize. This is fantasy with the warts left on -- a refreshing change from more usual fare.

Unusual also is Kritzer's portrayal of the rival religions. Standing new age dualities on their heads, she posits a Goddess-centered religion as the repressor, and an analogue of Christianity as the repressed (though she dodges the patriarchy issue by making the Redentore God female). The Fedeli are as obsessed with orthodoxy as any group of medieval inquisitors, and as brutal in their enforcement of it. Goddess-centered religions are usually associated with fertility and the renewal of the earth, but the magefire that was the Lady's gift actually damages the earth, drawing out its life-force. By contrast, the Redentori are intimately connected to the earth through their rituals and their music, and ultimately discover that in the practice of faith they too can summon up a kind of magic, one that gives life back rather than draining it. This is no mere good religion/bad religion dichotomy, however; Kritzer takes pains to show that her Fedeli aren't hypocrites but true believers, and to portray the problems that arise when faith begins to transform itself into institutionalized religion. The new Redentore church clearly has the potential to become as intolerant as the Fedeli.

Kritzer's engaging tale, with its down-to-earth approach and interesting themes, is somewhat hampered by flaws in execution. Her choice of an Italianate Renaissance setting makes for a pleasing alternative to the more standard medievalism, but while some locations (the conservatory and the first refugee camp) are well-drawn, others (Cuore, the Imperial Court) have a generic feel, and the broader cultural background and history are barely sketched in. The religions too are explained less fully than one might wish, especially the process by which the Fedeli supplanted the Redentori. Character motivation isn't always as well-grounded as it might be -- Eliana's transition from school girl to general, for instance, strains credibility both in its swiftness and in her lack of reflection on the change. And the latter half of the second book, in which momentous events pile up in overly quick succession, would have profited from being expanded by an additional 50 or 60 pages.

I suspect these problems may reflect the artificial process of taking a single book and breaking it in two as much they do a new novelist still finding her feet. Overall, it's a promising debut from a fresh new voice in fantasy, and I look forward to Kritzer's future work.

Copyright © 2003 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel The Garden of the Stone is currently available from HarperCollins EOS. For details, visit her website.

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