Review: "Southern Fire" by Juliet McKenna

Southern Fire by Juliet McKennaJuliet McKenna is a fantasy writer from the UK best known for her Tales of Einarinn series. Southern Fire is the beginning of another series of McKenna's, The Aldabreshin Compass. This is the first McKenna book I've read, so I'm not too clear on her overall mythos, but as far as I can tell the Compass books take place in another part of the same world as her other books.

McKenna is the thinking fantasy reader's author, the kind who dreams up fantasy elements and then works out the implications of those elements with the precision and thoughtfulness of a scientist, or, well, an SF writer. It's clear throughout Southern Fire that McKenna is spinning her tale out of a deep, rich, internally consistent tapestry of details and textures.

The Aldabreshin Archipelago is a cluster of islands ruled by warlords. The people of the Archipelago are absolutely terrified of magic, and considered it the foulest stuff imaginable. They give their trust and faith to the rational sciences, which include all forms of prophecy from entrail-reading to astrology. These people take their horoscopes very, very seriously.

Every warlord of the Archipelago rules his domain absolutely. Life and death is the warlord's to give. Kheda, the Daish warlord, is the protagonist of Southern Fire. His land is thrown into turmoil when magic-wielding barbarians from the previously-thought-uninhabited South attack one of his neighbors. Kheda's problem right away is that, not only does he have to defeat the invaders, he also has to defeat his own people's prejudices against magic. They have a tendency to turn on even allies who have been exposed to the scourge of sorcery.

Kheda is a wise but brutal man, really unusual for a fantasy protagonist. And the world of The Aldabreshin Compass feels distinctly different from your typical sword-and-sorcery domain. McKenna writes her dialogue with impressive craftsmanship. She knows exactly what motivates her characters, the rules of their society, the forms their interactions take; she has an incredibly sure hand as an author.

On the other hand, the pace and style of Southern Fire is more sedate than I would have liked. It doesn't exactly grab you. McKenna resists the urge to rely on the fantasy writer's toolbox of standard tropes—love delayed, boy discovers grand destiny/powers, etc.—to engage readers. This approach has its advantages—you rarely groan at cliches, you're forced to use your noggin as you read—and its disadvantages. Southern Fire can feel more like history than fantasy. It's a tribute to her knack for realism, I guess, but I would have appreciated a little more escapism with my fantasy. Philip Pullman, for instance, devotes just as much thought to crafting his imaginary world, but he tells a ripping good yarn while he's at it. He never gets bogged down the way McKenna sometimes does.

The next book in The Aldabreshin Compass is Northern Storm, available on Amazon in the UK paperback edition and probably in bookstores as well. The third book in the series, Western Shore, is just coming out in the UK and won't be available in the States for a while.

Southern Fire by Juliet McKenna
Published by: Tor; July 1, 2005
ISBN: 0765314118
Genre: Fantasy

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