City of Fire: A bit thin, even for youngsters

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewschildren's fantasy book reviews Laurence Yep City of FireCity of Fire by Laurence Yep

City of Fire is the opening book in a new YA fantasy trilogy by Laurence Yep, set in an alternate version of 1941 where humans and magical creatures (trolls, lap griffins, shapeshifters, dragons, etc.) freely intermingle and society employs a mix of magic and technology. The novel opens in San Francisco with a tense and mysterious pov, as the assassin narrator Bayang observes her target — a young boy named Leech who somehow poses a threat to Bayang’s “people” and who has yet to come into his “true power.” The scene then shifts to another pov, this time 12-yr-old Scirye, who — along with her mother the consulate, her sister the elite guardswoman, and her lap griffin — is in attendance at the museum opening of an exhibit of the greatest treasures of her culture (the Kushian empire). It quickly becomes clear that Scirye has some trouble with staying out of trouble and idolizes her warrior sister. From there, the pov shifts once more as we enter the museum exhibit with Leech and his friend Koko.

Once we’ve met the three major characters (Scirye, Leech, and Bayang) along with the two significant secondary characters (Leech’s friend Koko and Scirye’s lap griffin Kles), the story explodes into action with a sudden attack by a pack of dragons intent on stealing one of the treasures. In the chaos, several people are injured, two significant persons killed, and Bayang’s mission to kill Leech has been postponed so she can chase after the evil dragon Badik, who was responsible for the near-extinction of her people. Scirye and Leech, for their own reasons, also decide to go after the dragon and so, with their friends reluctantly joining them, the main characters are united in their mission. The rest of the book details their battle with Badik and his human accomplice, the terribly rich and powerful Mr. Roland. Their fight will take them all the way to Hawaii, where they’ll meet Pele, the island goddess of volcanoes. However, their geographic journey is nothing compared to the interior journeys all will make as each of them discovers something about themselves, and each of them grows into something other than they were at the start.

To be honest, City of Fire was a disappointing read. The alternate world was interesting, and we get a decent amount of description showing how the various races intertwine on a daily basis (troll museum guards, crocodile baggage handlers, etc.), but for some reason it never felt wholly there; it all felt a bit thin. Another problem was how arbitrarily magic was handled in the story: when the plot required some large bits of magic, characters were able to perform large magic, but when the plot required the characters to be in a sticky situation, the magic somehow wasn’t available, which didn’t make much sense since the magic was internal for several characters. Magic, in other words, became simply a convenient plot device, an amorphous catchall without any sense of limits or boundaries, and as such it felt like the author was cheating a bit. I found myself wondering why characters didn’t simply do a bit of magic at certain points, when they’d shown that capability elsewhere.

The villains, we’re told, are downright “evil”, but they don’t feel particularly so or particularly formidable. Yes, they steal and lie and enslave and make nasty traps and even kill, but they never really strike fear or even provoke a sense of wary respect in the reader. We know we’re supposed to fear them because the characters do, but the author hasn’t really done the hard work to back that up. The same holds true for the two significant deaths that occur at the start. Our main characters should be devastated at these two deaths, and they should haunt their thoughts and actions throughout. While the deaths and the grieving are referenced at times, it never feels sincere, partly because it seems forgotten for long stretches of time and partly because the characters bicker and joke as if the events never happened. Like the villains’ evil, it has no power, and like the magic, it feels as if the author pulled it out arbitrarily because it’s time to remind the reader, while at other times, one could read dozens of pages and not be aware that these characters have gone through devastating losses.

There are a few other issues. Bayang’s change of heart comes a bit too quickly for my liking, and too much comes through interior monologue. Leech is a relatively pallid character, despite Bayang constantly telling us how impressive he is. Scirye is by far the most compelling character, especially in combination with her griffin, but the young girl growing into herself isn’t a particularly original character tale.

Many of the problems I’ve mentioned might not be so much of an issue for very young readers, who I guess are the book’s target audience (as opposed to older YA). However, I hesitate to ignore flaws in the hope that the audience isn’t sophisticated enough to be bothered by them, especially with so much other good YA out there: top tier books like Suzanne CollinsHUNGER GAMES series or Kristin Cashore’s GRACELING trilogy, or not-quite-as good books like Rick Riordan’s PERCY JACKSON series or Suzanne CollinsGREGOR THE OVERLANDER. Any of these, and several others, would be a better choice. All of them are not only often enthralling, but are also sincerely moving in places. City of Fire, unfortunately, just can’t match them.


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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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