Review of ‘Flesh and Fire’ by Laura Anne Gilman

Flesh and Fire is the first novel in the Vineart War trilogy from author and editor Laura Anne Gilman, and actually originated from a request, intended as a joke, from her agent that she write food or wine-based fantasy. In a culture where the use of magic has been rather forcibly decoupled from the gathering of political power, a rising threat from a magical source of unknown origin threatens the world. A gifted young student Vineart, Jerzy, ends up tasked with trying to find out information about what’s going on, since Vinearts are naturally very insular and isolated. Sent into a trade city where his sheltered upbringing leaves him in over his head, he has to struggle to gather this information while also learning his trade. Very definitely a first book, its primary purpose is introducing the characters and world, and setting the stage for the later books and it did all of those things very well. I’ve already picked up the second book and am reading it directly after this one. Great stuff.

Once, all power in the Vin Lands was held by the prince-mages, who alone could craft spellwines, and selfishly used them to increase their own wealth and influence. But their abuse of power caused a demigod to break the Vine, shattering the power of the mages. Now, fourteen centuries later, it is the humble Vinearts who hold the secret of crafting spells from wines, the source of magic, and they are prohibited from holding power.

But now rumors come of a new darkness rising in the vineyards. Strange, terrifying creatures, sudden plagues, and mysterious disappearances threaten the land. Only one Vineart senses the danger, and he has only one weapon to use against it: a young slave. His name is Jerzy, and his origins are unknown, even to him. Yet his uncanny sense of the Vinearts’ craft offers a hint of greater magics within — magics that his Master, the Vineart Malech, must cultivate and grow. But time is running out. If Malech cannot teach his new apprentice the secrets of the spellwines, and if Jerzy cannot master his own untapped powers, the Vin Lands shall surely be destroyed.

In Flesh and Fire, first in a spellbinding new trilogy, Laura Anne Gilman conjures a story as powerful as magic itself, as intoxicating as the finest of wines, and as timeless as the greatest legends ever told.

After basically browsing through the entire fiction section of my local library, this was the only book that stuck in my mind enough to go back and actually borrow. I do love me some original and interesting magic systems, and my previous career was actually in wine-making, so the hook was definitely there. I got a little leery when we landed on young former-slave chosen one, but my fears in that regard were totally misguided.

This is actually just a really good book.

Young Jerzy is gifted. He learns fast, he picks things up and figures them out before he is even taught them, but he is definitely not -that- trope. He doesn’t get in his first spaceship at 9 years old and blow up 50 guys. He doesn’t get a couple sword lessons and then kill a blademaster with years of experience. He screws up, he makes mistakes, he gets in way over his head and instead of magically being better at everything than everybody else, being in over his head he flounders and needs saving. Fundamentally, he’s a well-developed and genuine character who acts like you’d think such a character would. When faced with something he has no experience with, he panics, or is super obvious, or just messes up. His attempts to fulfill all the expectations on him seriously stress him out, just like they should. It took very very little time for me to buy into this character, and to start caring about what happens to him, and he’s a large part of the reason why I’m moving directly onto the second book.

The other large part of why is the magic system. Given that I’ve read quite a few pieces of fantasy that were set in places very much like 1500s-1700s Spain, France or Italy, it is actually pretty surprising that I can’t think of ever having come across wine-based magic before now. As a system, it’s pretty comprehensible and consistent: Vinearts grow grapes, they can then ferment it into plain drinking wine (vin ordinaire), or imbue the wine with magic (vin magica). Once made into spellwine, anybody, magically gifted or not, can basically take a swig of the wine, and then use it to cast spells. Different kinds of grape get you different categories of spells. So some grapes make vin magica that deals with healing the body. Some grapes make vin magica that deals with the winds. Each individual Vineart generally just sticks to their land and their vines. They sell the wine, both mundane and magical, and trade for the spellwines their region doesn’t make.

The actual spellcasting is simple. You basically utter a phrase that I could break down as [object][effect][subject]. Normal people presented with a spellwine are basically taught exactly which phrase to say to use it, but the Vinearts themselves appear to be able to customize it a whole lot more. Throughout the whole book (and presumably series) is this deep undercurrent of the fact that the practice of wine magic makes a lot of people extremely uncomfortable. The Mage Princes of old were Very Bad People™ and the weakened version of magic that Vinearts practice, while mostly everybody is happy to benefit from, still makes them a little jumpy. There’s basically a whole religion that is based around watching Vinearts to make sure none of them do anything that even looks like it might have something to do with gaining any kind of political power. Even Jerzy’s master sending him to study with another Vineart is like…seriously scandalous and causes a lot of questions. The idea that any Vineart would learn from anybody besides just their one master, whose lands they’d inherit when their master died, or else take some of their master’s particular vines and go set up shop elsewhere is just not done.

So not only do we have a great protagonist, and an interesting magic system, we also have great politics and a solid plot? What more could I ask for? I really enjoyed Flesh and Fire and I’ve got Weight of Stone ready to go as soon as this review is done. Definitely recommended in general, and especially if you like original magic. You may not ‘never look at a bottle of Chardonnay the same way’ as one review quoted on the book said, but it might make you wish you could.

Dan borrowed a copy of this book from his local library

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Author: Dan Ruffolo

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