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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"Secrets of the Fire Sea" by Stephen Hunt (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official Stephen Hunt Website
Order Secrets of the Fire Sea HERE
Read FBC Review of The Court of the Air
Read FBC Review of The Kingdom Beyond the Waves

INTRODUCTION: "Secrets of the Fire Sea" is the fourth novel in the Jackelian series of Stephen Hunt. While the novels follow chronologically at relatively short intervals of time, each is a standalone and only one character appears so far in all as more than a cameo, while the main leads generally change from book to book.
I loved the debut The Court of the Air (FBC Rv Robert) which had some narrative problems but had so many "goodies" that I could forgive it almost anything, while the followup The Kingdom Beyond the Waves (FBC Rv Robert) was a top 5 fantasy of mine for 2008 and it's one of the most fun sff adventures I read in the last several years with a "for the ages" 60 page action sequence that ends it.

Sadly the *highly, highly awaited* third installment "The Rise of the Iron Moon" was a major disappointment of 2009 being too pulpy for my taste and I found it very hard to suspend disbelief, though when I gave it another try about a month ago, it read better though still far short from The Kingdom Beyond the Waves; so while Secrets of the Fire Sea made my 2010 Anticipated Book List, it was not an automatic buy like the two previous installments and I waited a bit and looked at what other people said before getting it.

In the discussion below I assume the reader is familiar a little with the setup of the Jackelian universe of which there is a good overview in the FBC Review of The Court of the Air, but the salient things are steampunk and the associated paraphernalia including steam powered computers, cars, submarines and airships, various races of people including the "ursines" of Pericor and a race of sentient robots, "the steammen", a world in which electricity is generally unusable due to instability and in which there are various religions, including the godless mathematical and rational Circlist one of the Jackelian people - of which the inhabitants of Jago are an offshoot so are Circlist too - religion that comes with all the apparatus including an inquisition aptly named The League of the Rational Court and excommunication for actually believing in God or gods...

"Secrets of the Fire Sea" stands at about 460 pages and is divided into 26 chapters and an epilogue. The action takes place pretty much on the island continent of Jago surrounded by a magma sea, where electricity works and where thousands of years ago, civilization kept going in the ice-age and later under the savage Chimecan Empire domination.

Today all that is a memory, Jago is in possibly terminal decline with population so low that most of its underground cities have been abandoned and only the capital Hermetica remains, emigration is forbidden, while the hard navigation through the magma sea that once was Jago's supreme defense has become a hindrance since the Jackelians discovered an alternative route to their overseas Concorzian colonies across the Fire Sea and only the ursines of Pericor for which Jago is a sacred scriptural land still come to trade regularly.

There are two main threads: one that follows young Hannah Conquest, a Jackelian born who was left orphan at age three on Jago and was taken as a ward of the Circlist Church of Jago led by Archbishop Alice Gray another Jackelian as all leaders of the Jago Church have been for a long time, while the second one follows famous investigator Jehtro Daunt and bodyguard/assistant steamman Boxiron who come to Jago on Commodore Black's submersible to investigate a murder.

"Secrets of the Fire Sea" is grand style adventure sff within a deeper context than the previous three novels in the loose series, dealing with faith, religion, science, what it means to be "human", "godlike", "sentient", how much technology is too much and leads to all-out civilization ending war and how little is too little and leads to devolution and savagery...

"Secrets of the Fire Sea" returns to the form of "Kingdom Beyond the Waves" with a superb tale that has sense of wonder, great characters, twists, turns and a new setting in the Jackelian world, the island continent of Jago described above.

"Secrets of the Fire Sea" starts as a
relatively straightforward coming of age tale when Hannah Conquest and her ursine friend, young Chalph urs Chalph's musings about their uncertain future are rudely interrupted by an unexpected notice of conscription for Hannah in the valve guild which keeps Jago going at the fundamental level of both computing and power source but at the price of the guild's men and women physical deformities due to the high radiation environment. As a supposedly Jackelian subject by birth and destined for the Church by ability - let's remember that the Circlist Church is a church of mathematics and rationality and the ordination exam is a sort of math PhD exam equivalent with a strong moral component - and by her position as ward of Archbishop Alice Gray, the conscription notice is odd to say the least, though its subtext is soon revealed.

Later on, we move to the second thread of the story and for a short time we visit the Jackelian capital of Middlesteel to see Jethro solving a case in the classical manner of putting psychological pressure on the suspects in a room. Despite being a defrocked parson for "having personal gods" and hating the Circlist Inquisition which decades ago had expelled him and ruined his betrothal to a rising star of the Church, Jehtro has to accept the League of the Rational Court's commission for Jago and on he goes with Commodore Black who has been convinced by Amelia Harsh - the archaeologist heroine of Kingdom Beyond the Waves and now finally a university bigwig - to escort Amelia's star pupil Nandi to Jago to continue the work of Hannah's parents so tragically dead years ago after announcing some intriguing discoveries...

And so it starts, but the plot thickens very quickly with all the subtext of Jago, humans, ursines and crisis described above to which quite a few things get added soon. The author manages to keep a pretty complex plot under control and switching between the two threads allows both to explore more and more of the setting on Jago as well as advance the story sometimes in quite unexpected ways.

The main characters, Hannah, Jethro and Boxiron are developed very well though not necessary the way we may think based on their "roles", while the supporting cast that include the eccentric, almost mad first senator of Jago, the Pericuran ambassador, the Jago chief of police and an ursine mercenary leader that leads a sort of praetorian guard for the Senate, in addition to Alice, Commodore Black, Nandi and Chalph is just superb.

So a sophisticated story, great setting and world building as in all the series novels and a memorable cast of characters, but "Secrets of the Fire Sea" does not stop here since we have duels including one with a "god", assassinations and assassination attempts, battles, intrigue, cryptography and deadly dangerous secrets, sense of wonder exploration of the wild interior of Jago and discoveries galore, while in the last third of the novel almost each page throws something cool and mostly unexpected at the reader. And of course there is the deeper context mentioned above which also includes an examination of the Circlist religion, an illustration of how long ago happenings turn to myth and even sacred text and more.

The superb ending brings all threads together and makes "Secrets of the Fire Sea" a true standalone, while the epilogue is one for the ages. An A++ that made the next Jackelian novel another top 10 anticipated one.


Anonymous said...

How can I not read this, then?

~ Neila of Vashon

A Question Of ITIL said...

Great writer!
Did you know he has a new trilogy coming out? Scifi Fantasy Book News, Reviews, Bargain - Stephen Hunt - The Far-Called Trilogy

Liviu said...

Actually just saw the announcement from his agent today; he also has a bunch of independently published books through Amazon too

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