At the start of Erin Hoffman’s debut novel Sword of Fire and Sea, Captain Vidarian is tasked by the priestess Endera to transport Ariadel, a young fire priestess, to the safety of a water temple. The journey will be dangerous, because Ariadel is pursued by the telepathic Vkortha, so Vidarian is understandably reluctant to take on the assignment, but when Endera invokes an old pact between his family and the Temple of Kara’zul, he has no choice but to comply….
For many reasons, I rarely give up on fantasy debuts, especially ones by authors from my hometown San Diego, but Sword of Fire and Sea by Erin Hoffman just didn’t have what it takes to keep me reading past the midway point — and even making it that far was a struggle.
If anything, Sword of Fire and Sea feels like a choppy novelization of what could be a great role-playing game. There is a plot, set in a well-realized world and involving an intricate magic system, but everything is introduced so haphazardly that it’s hard to figure out the true import of the early events until things settle down later on. There’s also very little character development early on, so characters like Vidarian, Ariadel and Endera don’t acquire any depth and remain templates.
As a result, the hectic, sometimes over-dramatic events of the first section of the novel (sea battles! gryphons! magic! romance!) just don’t have much impact on the reader. You can’t care much for the characters because they’re barely more than stick figures, and the world’s history and structure aren’t sufficiently explained yet to make everything feel real. All the high drama just doesn’t work without a context to place it in. This context will supposedly come later in the novel, but after slogging through over 100 pages of scenes full of characters I didn’t care for in an exotic but insubstantial world, I decided to call it a day. The start of the novel’s second section suggests that there’s some depth and history to the fantasy universe Erin Hoffman has created, and I’m sure the characters will eventually make it out of the cardboard realm too, but Sword of Fire and Sea simply takes too long to grab the reader’s interest.
It also doesn’t help that the prose frequently takes on a vivid purple hue:
Where Endera had been a polished, silvery flame with alabaster skin and golden hair and eyes, this Priestess Windhammer was a dusky ember, dark gold her complexion and raven black the long braid whose tail brushed past her hips.
Erin Hoffman is a video game designer as well as an author, and it’s hard not to feel that this world and story would maybe have worked better as the template for an elaborate RPG. There are heroes and villains, lots of action, an interesting magic system and an intriguing fantasy universe. All this material obviously took a lot of thought and imagination, and it would be fun to explore it in an interactive format… but as a novel it unfortunately doesn’t work. I genuinely wanted to like this novel, so I kept going back to it to give it another try, but in the end Sword of Fire and Sea is one of the very few books I just couldn’t find the motivation to finish.