MY RATING: 4 OUT OF 5 STARS. THE BEGINNING OF A SERIES WELL WORTH WATCHING. RECOMMENDED.
Soldier… Sorcerer… Savior… Who is Vhalla Yarl?
Vhalla Yarl marches to war as property of the Solaris Empire. The Emperor counts on her to bring victory, the Senate counts on her death, and the only thing Vhalla can count on is the fight of her life. As she grapples with the ghosts of her past, new challenges in the present threaten to shatter the remnants of her fragile sanity. Will she maintain her humanity? Or will she truly become the Empire’s monster?
~My Thoughts (+Minor Spoilers)~
Delivering a sequel to a strong debut is not always easy, especially when an author’s debut is as strong as Air Awakens, a novel I found to be well-executed, well-structured, well-characterized, and well-plotted. I hesitate to say I was disappointed with Fire Falling as a whole, because I still thoroughly enjoyed the book. I love what Elise has done with traditional elemental magic, and I love the world she’s created and the depths of the histories she’s introduced. But in Air Awakens, Elise didn’t need to rely on conventional expectations to make her good story a great one–she subverted expectations instead, and created something both unique and absolutely magical. Fire Falling, unfortunately, does not do the same.
Still, I must give credit where credit is due.
Vhalla is a powerful female lead, and not only because of her Windwalker abilities. As a library apprentice, she’s intelligent, resourceful, and naturally curious; as a sorcerer, she’s hard-working and self-improving. She loves the people in her life both openly and honestly, and it’s clear she would do anything to protect them; at the same time, she loves these people for everything that they are, and her relationship with Aldrick proves her capacity for bettering people with her unconditional love and support. When she runs into trouble and needs help, she asks for it; when she struggles with her studies, she works harder; and when she gets knocked down, beaten up, and ruthlessly manipulated, she gets up and keeps fighting. As a protagonist, she is one worth standing behind, and I believe she has enormous potential as a leader, as a sorcerer, as a friend, a lover, and a hero. She’s an absolutely incredible character.
But she isn’t alone. Aldrick, the crown prince, is just as three-dimensional a character as Vhalla, with a dark side that doesn’t feel contrived or forced. He acts the heir to the throne when he needs to, and he lets his walls down when the time is right. He draws in readers with both his arrogance and his tenderness, his ferocity and his cunning; he’s enticing, like a forbidden fruit, and the passion that burns between him and Vhalla feels real, powerful, and blindingly irresistible. He’s a broken man with a fortified front, and I love pretty much everything about him. If I were to say I read the series for anything, and I would say I read it for the magic, and I read it for Aldrick.
But the supporting cast has it’s positives as well. Fritz is absolutely endearing, and I love that he isn’t straight (I think he’s gay? But he may be bi–it hasn’t been explicitly ruled out). Larel is a wonderful, caring friend, and her backstory with Aldrick adds incredible depth to both characters. I also love Daniel, one of the soldiers from Baldair’s Golden Guard, and I like that his relationship with Vhalla doesn’t feel like a love triangle, even though it’s clear they both feel something for each other. And then, of course, there’s Baldair, the Heartbreaker Prince–a man who’s as difficult to pin down as Odysseus, whose motives are never clear but whose intentions always seem to be good. They’re a fun cast no matter how you look at them, and they’re a good mix of personalities.
My one character complaint is Elecia, a new character introduced to the series. Her relationship with Aldrick is kept ambiguous for most of the book, but she is, unfortunately, a terrible cliche. She hates Vhalla basically on sight, and does nothing to hide her contempt; she’s vocal about her disgust at Vhalla’s weak fighting abilities, and she’s upset with Aldrick for associating with her in any way. At the same time, Elecia is suddenly a constant fixture at Aldrick’s side; she makes him laugh, she makes him smile, she rides with him constantly, and she shares his confidence. She even uses his first name in casual conversation, which unnerves Vhalla on principle. To make a long story short, Elecia is a flat character I felt was introduced solely for the purpose of creating drama; she makes Vhalla feel insecure about her relationship with Aldrick, and she makes Vhalla feel jealous, even if she claims she doesn’t understand how she feels about this ‘other woman’ in Aldrick’s life. I’m hoping Elecia comes to play a more important role later on in the series, to make up for her role in Fire Falling, because of everything in the book, her character was what disappointed me the most. She was trite and stereotypical, and her real relationship with Aldrick was immediately obvious, despite how the author attempted to make it seem otherwise. I just feel like a series with so much life and imagination woven into it could have done without such an obvious cliche (and don’t even get me started on why Elecia needed to heal a certain someone without pants on–that was completely unnecessary, and was never explained).
Additionally, the major death in this book didn’t surprise me in the least. As much as I love many of the characters in the series, most of them lack their own motivations and plotlines outside of Vhalla, making them seem like they exist only when the plot needs Vhalla to have a friend or lose a friend, someone to pick her up when she’s feeling down or someone to die in order for her to grow as a character in response to intense grief, self-loathing, and anger. I can only hope, again, that many of these characters have a greater role in the grand scheme of the series, because for now, most of them are accessories for Vhalla at best.
Speaking of plot, Fire Falling has surprisingly little, although you don’t really notice that until the end of the novel; as a result, the story depends on its characters and its world-building in order to be both entertaining and interesting. In Air Awakens, that worked fine; the characters drove the action, and they did well, because in many ways, the characters were the plot. In Fire Falling, however, the drama doesn’t feel the same, so the plot feels emptier. Additionally, most of the action occurs in the last tenth of the novel, much like it did in Air Awakens. It’s an exciting collection of chapters, but it follows the exact same structure as the previous novel: Vhalla is repeatedly kicked while she’s down, nothing good really works out in her favour, and she can’t seem to catch any major breaks. Because of this, the climax of the story was both expected and underwhelming, and the Emperor’s last minute decision was completely unsurprising.
Despite all of this, Fire Falling is still a strong four star read. Elise Kova has some questionable dialogue-tag choices, but otherwise, her writing is sharp and bright, and she describes her world for her readers in a way that will always leave them desperate for more. There’s a war with the North, and it’s violent, gritty, and thrilling; there’s drama with the court, and it’s bloodthirsty, merciless, and vicious. There are characters you love, and there are characters you hate; there’s magic that will surprise you and impress you; there’s romance that will make your heart race and your breath catch. And the very end of Fire Falling will leave you questioning everything you know about the world Elise Kova has spent two books creating, and the cliff-hanger hints at the biggest game-changer the series may ever see. Regardless of my feelings on the contrary, Fire Falling is not a novel anyone should miss.