Monday, July 27, 2009

The Fire King, by Marjorie M. Liu - Review

The Facts
Title: The Fire King
Release Date: July 28 (eek, I thought I had more time for this review!)
Liu's Site (with a nice meaty excerpt)
ISBN: 08439-5940-1
307 pages

Short Answer
Loved! One of the best in the series.

Tell Me More
OK, but remember, you asked for it.

You know how, when you're on a job interview or at your performance review... or maybe the marriage counselor's office, heh, and they ask you those questions: "What's your greatest strength? And what's your greatest weakness?" and sometimes, the answer is the same thing?

One of the best things about Liu's universe is the endless variety of talents and mythologies she draws from. I think that in this way, she takes more chances than some of the paranormal authors out there who have a more tightly-focused world. And there have been some books that didn't appeal to me that much. This one though, just hit every note exactly right for me.

The World
For the most part, this is a book that answers more of the existing world-building questions rather than raising new ones. It's built on shades of gray and uncertain alliances. What really happened to all those shape-shifters? Previous books have alluded to a far-different-looking pre-history, where creatures of myth and legend were not only real but plentiful and played an equal role with humans when it comes to the question of "who's in charge here, anyway?" Most interesting to me was the absence of the Consortium, which has played the role of the villain in most prior books. Here, Liu introduces fractures within the hierarchy of the shape-shifters, and a new group which occasionally aids the Dirk and Steele team, but more in the spirit of a shared enemy than of a shared moral compass. Teensy spoiler: watch out for the double-cross!.

The Hero
Karr is a chimera, the first of these that we've seen in the series, and the discovery of his kind plays a pivotal role in the world-building. He's among Liu's oldest creatures and has an unnatural immortality, which is a mystery that is unravelled in the course of the book. He's isolated and lonely; heroic but with an undeniably brutal side. Able to shift into lion or dragon form, Liu's heroine finds herself thinking of CS Lewis' Aslan, and the Christ analogy isn't entirely off-base. He's a bit of an unlikely hero, but Liu brings them together, bit by bit. I can't say that Karr is my favorite hero; he's a bit more aloof than suits me, but he suits Soria, which is far more important.

The Heroine
Soria is one of the most interesting heroines you're going to see, ever. Shell-shocked, recovering from a major trauma, attempting to escape the shadowy world of Dirk and Steele and the adventures that she no longer feels up to, she is pulled back into a new mission with little choice. I love the way that Liu feeds us information about Soria-before, and Soria-after her trauma. I was frequently surprised, never bored, and yet the heroine's actions never seem out-of-character, perhaps because so much of the interior story is about her reclaiming and redefining herself.

She's got a don't-let-the-bastards-grind-you-down core (though it's been AWOL for a little while when the story opens) and a grim sense of humor that doesn't quit. This bit made me snort at an unladylike volume:
...given the circumstances, a paper trail seemed like a rather poor idea, right along with using a credit card, or writing her name across the sky with big giant arrows pointed down at her ass.

And when you learn about the trauma? whooee. It will set you back on your heels. Liu delivers a depth of horror with this matter-of-fact style that has you absolutely believing. It's more than a bit creepy that within her sky's-the-limit fantastical universe of magic and myth and super-powers, often the elements that are the most profoundly disturbing are the ones that we can find in true headlines. (My husband, the comic-book fan, reminded me that the major theme in the X-Men series is that the monsters are NOT the mutants.) Soria's character is my favorite part of this book -- the way she triumphs through the strength of will is an utterly gorgeous progression. And Karr's best moment is how he listens to her story, and gives her exactly what she needs. The scene is too long to excerpt here, but it's pitch perfect. Every word, every gesture.

And isn't that one of the purest romantic fantasies? A partner who can give us-- who can be-- exactly what we need?

Other Reviews
I'm seeing lots of articles announcing the release, but not too many reviews. Be sure to leave your link in comments if you have one, or know of one, and I'll add it into the post later.

Michelle Buonfiglio at B(u)y The Book


meljean brook said...

One of the things I love about this series -- aside from her prose, which just makes me cry like a weenie baby from envy -- is how standalone each book is, yet still connected. She has this huge world and mythology to explore, and never seems to back herself into a corner (which I admire from a writer's perspective, as well as a reader's) and with every book we seem to see a larger part of it.

I haven't read this one yet, but am really, really looking forward to it.

Chris said...

Interesting. It was a good read, but it wasn't one of my favorites.

Mishel (P.S. I Love Books) said...

Marjorie is definitely one of my favorite authors. And the Dirk & Steele series is so great.

I agree with Mejean, each of her books can be easily read as standalone but they connect so well with each other.

I can't wait to pick this one up =) I really enjoyed the review.

I ♥ Book Gossip said...

Oh I love this series so much. Do any of the old characters make an appearance?

Nicola O. said...

I Heart, there aren't too many secondaries here -- Robert from The Last Twilight makes an appearance, as does Eddie, the firestarter and Koni (whom I adore and whose story I'm hoping comes soon!). Also, Roland has a surprising role. But they're all pretty brief walk-ons.

Chris, I think my favorite is still Soul Song or maybe Shadow Touch, but this one is right up there. Top 3 or 4.

Meljean, I agree. This one in particular really focused on the individual characters, and their personal enemies, versus a big faceless Consortium. I think that Soria reminds me a little bit of your Charlie, too. ;)

flowerlady said...

Just finished the book the story is fine as a stand alone as long as you could get through the first few chapters with huh? I have read the previous books but I was slightly lost when it came to Eddie, when did he fall ill?
Where did Kuku come from? I think a reread is on the cards.
But the story was poignant and heartwarming. It made me realise what we take for granted, how hard it is to do everyday stuff with one arm/hand.

Nicola O. said...

flowerlady, too true.

The first chapter or two did bring in a LOT of characters, but honestly, I didn't think that there was much explanation for what was going on in the prior books.

In other words, those of us who have read the other books have met some of the characters, but didn't necessarily have a fix on what their situations were at the beginning of this story, including Eddie's illnes as far as I can remember.


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