“Oh, now that’s different.”
“Huh. That’s some smart use of rock and fire imagery.”
“Ok, now that’s COOL.”
“This is really, really different.”
I love cool and different.
The story opens on Aera’s final test as a priestess of fire: she must enter a labyrinth of the volcano, pass through multiple gates to the eye of the maze, and find a criminal who has committed blasphemy. Her job is to kill him to appease the Fire God before the priests release the lava to flood the labyrinth. Because she can become lava herself, if she has the energy and strength to change, the volcano won’t hurt her. If Aera does not execute the prisoner, she will be killed. Many, many priestess candidates have failed in this test and are tossed into the volcano or run voluntarily, sacrificing themselves.
Aera is confident that she will pass, as her isolation as a priestess and her alienated childhood before that have left her with few connections to people who care for her. She is and has been a tool for others to use. Her family was ostracized and lowered in social caste to the very bottom because of generations that produced no one with fire talent to serve the temple. When teenage Aera manifests powers of fire in the middle of the night and burns the whole house down, it’s cause for great celebration: her talent is lava. She can become lava. She turns all hot and molten, and her family is restored in social status because Aera is immediately taken to the temple to be trained by the priests to one day serve as the Priestess.
She leaves behind her family, who are all to happy, it seems, to sacrifice her to their improved status. She also leaves behind her best friend, Coram, who is her lone defender against the taunts and abuse of other children. Coram is of a lower caste himself, and the morning after she burnt the house down, he watched her leave and couldn’t say goodbye.
Aera walks the labyrinth to the center and finds…Coram. He’s sentenced to die as a blasphemer because he can become stone. He is a gargoyle. And since he is not of fire, his talent is an insult to the Fire God, his gift is a sin, and he has to die.
I can’t get into too much detail of what made the story so nuanced and interesting in its imagery and word choice because I’d give too much away. Coram and Aera reunite, and Aera has to face saving her friend, the one person she loves and mourned and missed, or face her own death. Coram has to face that he’s to be killed by someone he loves. The troubled morality of their world is reflected in the images of rock, either molten or brittle or solid or crumbled. The idea that solid, immovable rock can become molten and fluid and deadly, then freeze too quickly to become a porous fragile husk is a powerful metaphor for the imbalance of power in their world. I spent the first third in terrible tension, walking with Aera around and around, passing through the gates through the labyrinth, learning her story and realizing the elements of her life that are at stake as she faces this final test.
But once Aera and Coram start talking, the story steps back from cool and different to a blend of the cool and different cut with, at times, too much cliche and out of character behavior. Aera goes from being quiet and reserved, almost stone-like in her own emotional stoicism, to outright hysterical and shrieky alarmingly fast. Face with the choice between her life, Coram’s life, and the immediate ostracization of her family if she chooses incorrectly, she is so overwhelmed she can’t think – that is understandable. But the giant leaps in her understanding of her feelings for Coram and the changes in her perspective as to the history of their relationship are harder to believe. The subtlety with which Aera’s past is revealed is not equaled in the revelation of her history with Coram, nor her realizations of his and her feelings for her. They were glossed over so quickly, they didn’t have the depth and power of the earlier revelations.
Note: if you dislike anything resembling a spoiler, please skip this paragraph. Otherwise, highlight to read.
If you want hot content, the sexual descriptions are not explicit in a way I would expect. There are more words used for the lava than their copulation. I’m fine with oblique sex scenes, but I wanted to know more about how Aera’s lava would react with Coram’s gift of turning to stone – and hey, that’s like Cialis-plus, right?! Even without the obvious metaphors and sexual terminology, I read the sex scenes and thought, “Wait, that’s it?!” It wasn’t so much for my own prurient interest, but the consequences of their sexual interactions deserved, I thought, more narration than they received.
I read the novella avidly because I wanted that opening tension back, and while there were some excellently written suspenseful moments, I ended with a lot of wishes. I wish that more had been said about Coram, that more had been revealed about him. I wish that the tension of the opening scenes had been sustained in equal measure after Coram and Aera meet, and as their story winds to a close. I wish the imbalance of power had been corrected or that the possibility of fear had been raised in those who are committing acts of manipulation and malevolence. The door is left open for great possibilities in sequels and I would welcome the chance to revisit this world, especially if Aera and Coram kick ass and take names. Howson’s writing and facile use of descriptions of the rock, the fire, the volcano, the ash and the burning molten lava work with the story and reveal more than mere adjectives would normally. I was disappointed by the ending, but I’m still burning curious about what happens next in that world.