11 May 2008

Review: Survive My Fire & The Fire Within, Joely Sue Burkhart

Introduction to Bethanie's Reviews

OK, finally. I’m getting around to posting this, the long-promised ‘reviews’ of Joely Sue Burkhart’s Survive My Fire and The Fire Within, which I decided to do together because they both take place in the same culture, so some of the things I want to yak about overlap (and I’m kind of lazy…).

But first, A Warning – I am probably not going to do this right. I’ve never ‘reviewed’ anything before and I really hesitate to use the word ‘review’ at all, since it carries heavy connotations that I think my opinion is somehow more important than anyone else’s, which I simply don’t.

My reviews will be more my thoughts on and reactions to stories I either read or watch (i.e., movies) and my attempt to process - mainly for my own benefit - the techniques and bits of craft that I most admired (or that didn’t seem to work for me). For that reason, it isn’t enough for me to say ‘I liked it’; I need to think about why. And so, my reviews are more a part of my own learning process than a proper ‘review’ in the traditional sense.

At the same time, I suppose I am recommending what I review as worth reading/viewing or not. But I'm not going to rate things on a scale of 1-to-10 or anything like that. Partly, this is because I'd probably end up rating an awful lot of thing a 50, which would be silly. But I also don't really believe a rating is all that meaningful, since how I rate something is purely subjective. In light of that, it just makes more sense to me to say what I thought, plain and simple. If I love something, I'll say that. If something isn't quite my cuppa tea, I'll say that.

So. Now that everyone is on the same Bethanie page...

Survive My Fire
Joely Sue Burkhart

The gist of the story is that a woman, who considers herself incapable of love, has been cursed to spend eternity as a dragon. She can only be saved from this fate by falling in love with a man who must kill her (and who has noble reasons for doing so) and who expects to die in the process. All the elements of a tragic love story, plus a good dose of fantasy – in other words, right up my alley.

Overall impression. I was pretty much blown away by every aspect of this story. It was beautifully written, tightly plotted, and focused on two memorable and well-developed characters. Just awesome. Go read it. Like, right now. :)

And now, a few specifics:

Characters. I really liked the way I came to intimately understand just what a monster the dragon-woman is and how she got that way. As the story develops, you gradually learn about her past, about what she did that got her cursed and you understand why she considers herself unable to love. But the really cool part was that not only did I understand it - I ended up feeling this with her, which was a very intense and unexpected surprise.

The male character is equally interesting and complicated and I found him to be ‘believably noble’, if that makes any sense. I guess this is because, in some stories I’ve read, when a character goes charging off to certain death, I tend to roll my eyes, since the character has done something stupid to get himself or herself into the situation in the first place. This guy, though, really has no other choice. His back is up against the wall, and he’s going down one way or the other - he just wants to make sure it counts when he does. And as a reader, I was there with him every step of the way, I was in his shoes and I was convinced that he was doing exactly what needed to be done.

Point of view. The was one of the coolest things about this story for me: Throughout, the narrative switches point of view from 1st to 3rd person depending on which character’s head we’re in (the dragon-woman is 1st, the male is 3rd). I’ve read about this technique, but have never read anything that actually used it.

It was really effective. I liked it a lot, in fact. Why? Well, for one thing, it was very clear when the POV changed, and as we all know, I am a huge fan of clarity, so that is certainly part of why this worked so well for me. But I also think the 1st person POV had a lot to do with how tightly I was drawn into the dragon-woman's head and why I ended up feeling so strongly what the character was feeling. That line between reader and character became thinner and thinner and thinner until I forgot it was supposed to be there at all. Which was awesome.


The Fire Within
Joely Sue Burkhart

Overall.
Blown away. Again. It’s that simple.

Specifics

Hookage. These are the first two lines of The Fire Within:

Blessed Lady above, let him kill me quickly.

Eleni refused to cower as her brother strode toward her, his darkened face twisted with rage beneath the simple gold circlet on his head.

If that doesn’t grab your attention, I don’t know what will: right there – BAM! – with two sentences you are introduced to the heroine, her antagonist, and the main conflict in the story. Do you know how hard that is to write? It’s stinkin’ hard, people. I am in awe. More importantly, by the bottom of page 1, I was biting my lip in fear for Eleni’s life and from there, the story never lets up. Which is exactly the kind of story I love – out of the fire and into the frying pan. Fan-tab-ulous!

World building. Both The Fire Within and Survive My Fire are set in the desert culture of a land called Keldar, which at first made me go “Oh, yawn. How Dune.” I mean, once you’ve seen one desert culture, you’ve seen ‘em all, right?

Wrong. Oh, so completely wrong. Dune has got nothin’ on Keldar, nothin’.

In my opinion, if you've a fantasty writer, The Fire Within should be required reading as a lesson in world building because it is SO well done. I know how hard it is to world build without info dumping and ... well, there just isn't any info dumping in this story. None. Really. The culture is built up around you as the story progresses, bit by bit, detail by detail, custom by custom. And at any given moment there is just enough and not too much, so you don't get overwhelmed or bored by long explanations or confused by too many new things. Instead, you find yourself drawn deeper and deeper into the midst of a living, breathing culture, which is an art and takes a lot of skill to do so well. Really impressive stuff.

Not a word out of place. Normally, when I’m reading, I’m editing in my head as I read. I can’t help it. I edit stuff for a living; it’s an unfortunate occupational hazard. This did not happen in Survive My Fire or The Fire Within. At all. Bravo!

Originality. As I've already said, forget about Dune, this is a whole 'nuther thing. And no other aspect of these stories reminds me of anything else I've read, which is pretty damn cool. Finally, I LOVE the dragons and the author’s conception of them. I haven’t read anything quite like it and I'm not going to say anything more, because I don't want to spoil the coolness for those who have not read the stories yet. :D

So, have I convinced you? If so:

You can read more about Survive My Fire here and read more about The Fire Within here.

Or you can just go straight to Drollerie Press to buy the stories here.

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3 comments:

Joely Sue Burkhart said...

*keels over from too much blood rushing to my face*

Bethanie, this is a fantastic review. I love how you talk about the specifics of what you enjoyed and why. Whoa, thank you SO much. I'm beaming!

Bethanie said...

hee-hee - you're very welcome! :-D And thank YOU for writing such great stories.

I felt weird going into such detail, 'cuz other people who review things don't seem to, but... well, like I said, it's important for me to work through why I like something. And I don't suppose I'm really the type who does what everybody else does, anyway, so there. Hah! :D

dfisher said...

Hi Bethanie! Thank you for the reviews. I like the detail you've added. It gives readers a good reason to buy (or avoid) a particular story. If you're interested in reviewing more works published by DP, drop me a note (dfisher @ drolleriepress.com) and we'll add you to our regular list of reviewers.