Ever had a meal that was absolutely exquisite, but the portion was so small that your stomach was still rumbling afterward? My experience with Stealing Fire was much like that.
Jo Graham’s Numinous World series is best described as “historical fantasy” and revolves around a core group of characters who are reincarnated at various points in history. The protagonist of Stealing Fire, Lydias of Miletus, lived previously as Gull in Black Ships, and will later live as Charmian in Hand of Isis.
Alexander the Great has died, and his empire has fallen into chaos as his nobles fight amongst themselves for power. Lydias, a soldier who feels emotionally adrift after losing everyone he loved, chooses to accompany Ptolemy to Egypt. Trouble follows Lydias, both in the form of political/military danger from Alexander’s other generals and in the form of restless spirits. Alexander had been crowned as Pharaoh, and the spirits of Egypt will only be appeased when Alexander is given the proper funeral rites and a new Pharaoh enthroned. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Alexander’s body lies in the hands of Ptolemy’s enemy, and besides, Ptolemy doesn’t want to be king, wishing only to hold the throne in the name of Alexander’s infant son.
Interspersed with this plotline, told in flashbacks, is the story of how Lydias rose from slavery to his current position. The scenes narrating Lydias’ adolescence are some of the most moving in the novel. You can’t help but love this gutsy, idealistic young man.
Graham’s work is, as always, meticulously researched and beautifully written. She immerses the reader in the place and time: the often-foreign-to-us attitudes, the smell of the food, and most of all, the sense of upheaval. We have the benefit of hindsight and know how things turned out, but Graham shows us just how uncertain the situation was at the time. It must have felt like the end of the world.
Stealing Fire is a compelling yarn, a love letter to Egypt, and a meditation on how best to govern a diverse realm. (And how not to govern one.) Graham’s political background shines through as the characters discuss what makes a great leader. Her gift for humor is in evidence, too:
He looked at me and his eyes twinkled. “Besides, is politics so different than dealing with horses?”
I laughed. “I suppose not,” I said. “Only we cannot geld for bad temper!”
“I’m considering it,” Ptolemy said.
Yet, as I said above, I was left hungry for more. As in Hand of Isis, I felt there was a lot of story that hadn’t made it into the book. In Hand of Isis, I craved more scenes of Iras; in Stealing Fire, what seemed too brief were the relationships and the fantasy elements. Lydias has several partners over the course of the book, and some of these relationships could have benefited from more page time. As for the fantasy elements, we only get a few scenes showing the destruction wrought by the restless spirits. For various reasons, it takes several years for Lydias and Ptolemy to implement their solution, yet we don’t get a sense of mounting danger as time passes (from the spirits, anyway; there’s plenty from Ptolemy’s rivals). True, Lydias spends much of this time away on campaign, but a few more scenes before his departure and after his return might have made his mission seem more pressing.
In fantasy, there are lots of great short-story ideas that get stretched into long novels, great novel ideas that become bloated trilogies, and great trilogy ideas that become long, plodding series. With that in mind, maybe I shouldn’t complain that Stealing Fire feels like an 800-page book compressed into 300 pages. After all, Jo Graham left me wanting more, and there’s something to be said for that. I’d gladly read the 800-page version, though!