It’s really neat that the Of Darkness, Light, and Fire omnibus contains both urban fantasy and classical fantasy. Not a lot of combined editions will do that. It showcases Tanya Huff’s wider abilities, and it also provides a nice change of tone if one is reading the two novels back to back. It can also make the task of comparing the two books somewhat more difficult. Even after a few days of thinking on it, I’m still not sure whether I prefer The Fire’s Stone to Gate of Darkness, Circle of Light.
Back in the day when I was all up in the David Eddings stuff, I picked up a copy of his The Rivan Codex. It’s essentially a cookbooks for constructing your own fantasy world. He lays out exactly how he went about creating the various political and economic systems of each of the countries that appear in the Belgariad/Mallorean world by taking existing cultures and societies and adapting them. It provides interesting insight into one possible way of creating a fantasy world, and it’s also a potent reminder that it’s very easy to fall into the trap of cookiecutter fantasy characterization.
The Fire’s Stone is, at times, almost laughably like this. The three protagonists are literally a fighter, a mage, and a thief (TVTropes alert). They go off on a quest to retrieve the eponymous stone, which magically protects the city of Ischia from being consumed by a volcano. Because, you know, it’s totes a good idea to build your city near a volcano and then rely on magic to protect it. Along the way, they do the typical fantasy quest things, including drinking in taverns and fighting pitched battles. (And then there’s the Shoi, the stereotypical “magical romantic nomad” analogues.) (TVTropes)
In a way, I find this book very reassuring, because it reminds me of the kind of stuff I was writing when I was much younger and was just beginning to grasp the idea of cliché. Which is not to say that The Fire’s Stone is clichéd, just that, by contemporary standards, it is definitely more loyal to the usual classical fantasy tropes than subversive. This is not a bad thing, and Huff plays it in the right way to create a compelling narrative. But there is never really a time when The Fire’s Stone will leap off the page and surprise you.
There are a few clunky components that almost made me cringe. I really wanted to like Chandra, because she is so committed to remaining independent and preserving her agency. She is also a whiny sixteen-year-old girl who spends much of the novel displaying incredible skill but then stamping around and declaring, “Of course not! I’m a Wizard of the Nine!” as if that’s her answer to every possible question she could ever be asked. (“Would you like fries with that?” “I’m a Wizard of the Nine!” “What time is it?” “I’m a Wizard of the Nine, do you expect me to tell time?”) She is remarkably single-minded. I found this very annoying, though to be fair, Huff does a good job showing that this is part of the process of her developing into a more mature, open-minded individual.
The antagonists of this book are remarkably laid back. The king who organized this heist is quite concerned about the idea that an incompetent prince and a thief (who got caught, so, you know, probably incompetent) are on their way to steal back the Stone. The wizard who actually has the Stone? Not so much. And, apparently, despite having the power of the Stone, not much of a match for our heroes.
If it seems like I’m speaking in very generalized terms, that’s because it’s so easy to generalize here. Huff has all the components down, but she has yet to be able to season the dish with a sufficient amount of her own original creations. The Fire’s Stone is a very skilled but bland work.
I did enjoy the development that Darvish undergoes. He begins as a fairly boorish drunkard who, despite being permanently intoxicated, doesn’t seem to have any problems in bed. (Mind you, he’s a prince. He can probably afford some good wizardry, if you know what I mean.) Forced to step up for the good of the kingdom, Darvish changes for the better. The change is gradual, and Huff depicts the struggle he has to remain clean after giving up drinking. It gets to the point when, in the climax, he almost slides all the way back down the slope.
I also enjoyed the slight twist to the standard romantic pairing that we’d usually see in this type of book. Darvish is bisexual, and initially he’s quite taken with Aaron the thief. Aaron has scome cultural taboos about that, and it takes him a while to overcome that prejudice. Meanwhile, Chandra has been betrothed to Darvish against her will, and without ever meeting him. She is committed to remaining pure and free from distraction (“I’m a Wizard of the Nine!”)—good luck with that one.
Tradition would dictate that, over the course of their quest, Darvish’s nobility and self-sacrifice would soften Chandra’s heart and cause her to love him and want him despite her resistance. Instead, Darvish and Aaron grow closer, while Chandra does some soul-searching and decides she can marry Darvish, for the good of her kingdom, and not sleep with him (especially if Darvish has someone else to keep him comfortable instead). It’s all very complicated and decidedly not traditional, which is awesome.
Despite being more rigorously cookiecutter in some aspects, I’d probably say I prefer The Fire’s Stone over Gate of Darkness, Circle of Light. I don’t know whether this is a bias of classical fantasy over urban fantasy, or if it’s more to do with the specifics of the plot and characters involved. Maybe it’s that I expect people in urban, contemporary settings to feel more “real” and less stereotypical, whereas it’s easier to get away with the fantasy character-class approach in a classial setting.
Regardless, The Fire’s Stone won’t be making any of my “best of” lists any time soon. But I think that it’s one of those books that would make sense as an answer to someone who asked, “What is a fantasy novel?” I could hand them this story and tell them, “It goes something like this,” and suddenly they would understand. And really, I think sometimes that can be sufficient.