Title: From Unseen Fire (Aven Cycle 1)
Author: Cass Morris
Publisher: DAW Books
Release Date: April 17th, 2018
Genre(s): Fantasy, Alt-History
Page Count: 400
This book is a lesson in tempering expectations. One would think that, being a fan of the video game industry, it’s one I’ve learned backwards and forwards by now, but nope–not when it comes to books, it seems. I came into the story wide-eyed and giddy. Months and months before, I’d feasted my eyes on the gorgeous cover, read the words “alt-history” and “Rome” and “magic,” and thought “holy hell, this is made for me,” then fell headlong into hype town. But alas, reality is a cruel mistress. Because while it’s not a terrible historical-fantasy story, it’s a painfully mediocre one–which, to me, is the ultimate kiss of death.
The premise of the story is based around one question: what would the fate of the Roman Republic have been if it’d had mages at its disposal?
First of all, the story suffers from a bit of an identity crisis. It’s mainly set in a city called Aven. And pretty much everything about Aven (minus the magic), from architecture to social and political structure, to its dictator, is identical to Ancient Rome.
Well, okay, so it’s a fantasy world inspired by Rome!
Well, no. Because Aven gods are Roman gods–Jupiter, Juno, Mars, and the like. And the protagonist mentions “Remus” at one point, so Romulus and Remus and the legend of how they founded the ancient city obviously exists in this world (though it makes no sense then as to why the city would be called “Aven” rather than “Rome”).
Then it’s…an alternate history with a dash of fantasy!
No, not quite! Because while Aven does have its own Julius Caesar equivalent, his name of “Ocella,” and he dies not of an assassination but an illness. Also, the Mediterranean Sea is called the “Middle Sea” and Lusitania (known today as Spain and Portugal) has been ever so slightly altered to “Lusetania.” It’s as if Aven is your white friend, Adam Smith, who’d one day decided he would get dreadlocks and call himself Swift Flowing River and sell vaginal cleansing moon water at $69.99 per bottle. It’s all just so weirdly dressed-up and unnecessarily inconsistent. There are too many changes made for it to be alternate history, yet too similar to history for it to be an original fantasy world.
Secondly, let’s take a look at the magic system, which I thought was full of potential:
There are nine types of elemental magics in this world and each has its own patron gods–Spirit mages, for example, are said to be blessed by Jupiter and Juno. When charted all out like this on paper, it looks really neat. Nothing too original, but familiar and cool. My problem is that we don’t get to see many of these magics at work in the story itself. There are throwaway comments here and there about a certain mage doing this or that, but Fire and Shadow are the only ones that the story (sporadically) focuses on.
Moreover, Aven feels like plain old Rome, with little to indicate that it’s a city of mages. There are so many ways that the magic could have been incorporated into the setting. Architectural inventions that rely on magic. Elaborate fashion designs that are reflective of specific patron deities and their powers. There are so many cool possibilities that the story just doesn’t explore, and I was left gnashing my teeth in frustration and disappointment.
The characters are a hit and a miss–mostly the former. Latona is a fine lead character. She’s a Spirt and Fire Mage, which means that she can influence emotions and blow shit up, respectively. She’s independent and fiercely protective of her loved ones, but she’s also dealing with trauma from her time at the Dictator’s court, where she was manipulated and kept under leash. I liked how she channels all the guilt, rage, and helplessness she’d felt into helping other vulnerable women.
The same, unfortunately, can’t be said for her male co-lead, Sempronius, and most of the supporting characters. Stories with large casts run the risk of uneven distribution of character development, and that’s exactly the case with this book.
Sempronius is a Shadow and Water mage. Immediately following the death of Oscella, he scries a vision of two possible Avens: one of properity and strength like it has never seen before; the other, of ruin and dust–our Rome, basically. And so Sempronius is determined to do whatever it takes to prevent this second future from taking hold. We see very early on that he’s a noble, charismatic, and ambitious man. And as the story goes on, he continues to be noble and charismatic and ambitious, and…nothing much more. Interesting, complex characters either shed layers or have layers added to them over the course of a story. But Sempronius at the beginning of this story is the same as the Sempronius at the middle and at the end. Bland and paper-thin, he essentially exists for the sole purpose of moving the plot forward (and very slowly, at that).
The supporting characters fare no better, with perhaps the exception of Aula, Latona’s older sister, and Merula, Latona’s handmaiden. Part of the problem is that we see so little of so many of them that it’s hard to feel one way or the other about any. The other problem is that they’re just not very interesting. There’s nothing notable that distinguishes one from the other and they all kind of blend together after a while.
There are two main plotlines: the upcoming election of Aven, which Sempronius is campaigning for, and the rising conflict in Lucenatnia, led by the 20 year-old war-leader, Ekialde. I wasn’t really invested in either of them, and a lot of that has to do with uneven pacing. Nothing much important happens throughout a large chunk of the middle, and then there’s a sudden flurry of activities in the last 70 pages. It also has to do with the the structure of the narration, which was very different from what I’d expected. Many of the scenes are written almost like vignettes: there’s a lot of dialogue and exposition and description of actions, but no detailed descriptions of the setting (or any extraneous details) in between. It’s very economic. Which makes it digestible but doesn’t keep me deeply immersed in the world.
The bottom line is that I was bored. I was bored reading a character-driven story about Ancient Rome and political intrigue and foreign threats and magic influenced by Roman gods. It’s a brilliant premise that fails to deliver. And I tried to like it. I wanted to like it. But for that to happen, you got to give me something to hook my interest onto, and all I found were smooth, flat walls.
Thank you to DAW Books and Netgalley for providing me with a review copy.