A couple of weeks ago, my neighbour brought us some biscuits. They were some of the fluffiest biscuits I’ve ever had, but bland, really, really bland. Even bland, they weren’t particularly bad biscuits, but they were definitely missing something.
This is how I feel after reading Fires of the Faithful by Naomi Kritzer.
Fires of the Faithful is the story of Eliana, a student at a music conservatory who hopes to obtain a prestigious position as a court musician when she graduates. For the most part, the conservatory is sheltered from the famine that ravages the land, but the conservatory’s peace is shattered when a student is murdered for clinging to Old Way beliefs, and Eliana finds that she cannot stay within the conservatory walls any longer, especially when she discovers the terrible secret that the mage Circle and the priests of the Fedeli are keeping from everyone.
You know how I keep complaining about how most fantasy books treat religion like a prop writers can bring out and put away and not like something that plays a central role in the lives of many (or at least some) people? Needless to say, when a fantasy book bothers to treat religion as more than just a prop, I tend to take notice.
Having said that, unfortunately, Fires of the Faithful takes the Crystal Dragon Jesus approach to religion. Crystal Dragon Jesus isn’t necessarily a problem in and of itself, but Fires of the Faithful just doesn’t even try, and the thing is, having a Christian-esque religion be the Old Way and the more Pagan-ish faith be the newcomer would have been interesting except that the Old Way….really isn’t that interesting. The prayers are in Aramaic, people pray to God (who is female yet still referred to as God) her son, Gesu, and the Holy Light. Gesu was betrayed by Giudas, adherents wear crosses, practice “sealing” (baptism), and hold Masses, and the quotes that begin each chapter are basically Bible quotes with a phrase or two changed. It might have been interesting, but instead it just made for a dull read.
I didn’t find the characters to be particularly memorable. Even though we spend the whole book inside Eliana’s head, I didn’t really get a sense of her as a character. She’s looking forward to a prestigious career, she loves Old Way music, she loves her family, but there was nothing that really stuck out to me other than that she was tall and often mistaken for a boy. The side characters that she meets all seem interchangeable, the men are friendly and gracious hosts, the women fill a support role. There are some exceptions but overall I just couldn’t bring myself to care about any of these characters and what they were doing. Much of the blame for this, I feel, is the author’s style, which is not very descriptive in general. It’s not that the writing is technically bad, it’s that it lacks depth and emotion. It’s the sort of thing one would expect from a first novel (which it is) but unlike other first novels I’ve read, I don’t even want to return to the series just so I can see if the author has improved. Even the presence of a queer protagonist (Eliana appears to be bisexual) is not a compelling enough reason for me to continue with this duology.
I think the main problem with Fires of the Faithful is that all its parts are half-baked so it just feels half-baked overall. The Old Way is one of the laziest examples of Crystal Dragon Jesus I’ve ever seen, the writing is dry and emotionless (though readable), and the characters aren’t memorable at all. It’s not a bad book in the sense that it’s problematic or that the writing is awful, but in the sense that it lacks emotion and failed to provide the reader with at least some feeling for the characters. Like my neighbour’s biscuits, it’s not bad, it’s just bland.