I’ve had a hard time writing much of anything lately, though I’m working on reviewing some books. I read this year’s Nebula nominees recently–or most of them, since from what I’ve heard about Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, it’s pretty much the same kind of deal as his short stories. I’m not sure I can deal with his trademark ecologically collapsed dystopias right now. I’ve written about Finch here before. I’m writing about Laura Anne Gilman’s Flesh and Fire now because what I have to say is short enough that I can actually finish the post.
This review is short because I bailed on Flesh and Fire a third of the way in. I’m not sure why this got a Nebula nomination–it’s a standard volume one of an Extruded Fantasy Product trilogy. (I’m not convinced that any series should be nominated for anything until it’s finished, unless each volume stands alone.) Judging from the first few chapters and a quick skim through the rest of the book the plot doesn’t go anywhere particularly unusual for the breed. But the details are off-puttingly weird.
In Flesh and Fire’s world, wizards own slaves. The protagonist is taken from slavery to become his master’s apprentice–it appears wizards all begin life as slaves as well as owning them. What’s strange is that the book seems to think we should like, or at least not detest, the wizards, and based on my skim-read there is so far no sign that this series is building to a takedown of the whole rotten system. This creeped me out.
The other oddity is the magic. Flesh and Fire features a wine-based magic system. The wizards (or “vinearts”) grow magic grapes–this is where the slave labor comes in–and produce “spellwine” which they have to drink to use. Presumably there are only so many spells they can cast in a certain period before they pass out in a pool of their own vomit. The book spends a lot of time setting up the mechanics of the system and if you’re not a big wine fan it makes for odd reading. Eventually I realized what this reminded me of: those mystery novels whose protagonists are slightly too focused on cooking or crossword puzzles or weirdly intelligent cats. They’re the cozy version of the men’s adventure novels that spend way the hell too much time on the technical details of submarines and submachine guns.
Flesh and Fire is an epic fantasy for people who really, really like wine. I have no idea what this says about the Nebula judges.