February 22, 2010


Book One of the Vineart War
by Laura Anne Gilman
374 pages, Pocket Books

Review by Melissa Conway

Ask a roomful of agents and editors to tell you what they’re looking for in a novel and you’ll get a mish-mash of answers. But one thing they all agree on: a fresh take on an old conceit (that’s editor-speak for ‘concept’) makes their little hearts go pitter-patter.

Flesh and Fire is very conceited.

We’re all familiar with the various kinds of magic out there: witches brew magic potions; wizards chant magic incantations, genies grant wishes, etc., and if we stumbled upon a bubbling cauldron, a book of runes, or a dusty lamp, we’d recognize it as the tool of a magical being.

If we happened upon one of the Vinearts in Laura Anne Gilman’s high-concept (that’s editor-speak for ‘broadly appealing’) story, we wouldn’t see the magic coming. I certainly wouldn’t run screaming from a man taking a mere sip of wine. But that’s where Gilman’s fresh conceit takes us—into a world where the magic is in the vines, in the grapes, in the fermentation process, in the men who were born to craft spellwines.

All across Italy—I mean the Vin Lands, because the Church—I mean the Collegeium, tells them so, people believe in the same legend. The ancient Kings—I mean Prince-Mages, misused their power and were smote by Jesus—I mean Sin Washer. Now it’s up to the Vinearts to keep tradition, and magic, alive while simultaneously curbing any curiosity that strays outside the strict limits Sin Washer foisted upon them long ago. Peace has reigned for 14 centuries, so the system works—no matter that Vinearts are soulless bastards who keep slaves to run their vineyards. That’s actually just another tradition. You see, a Vineart must know humiliation by having been a slave himself before being selected to train under the master.

I poke fun, but the writing is crisp and the premise isn’t really hard to swallow. Gilman’s main character, Jerzy, a prepubescent slave who’s just been selected by the master to learn the Vineart secrets, takes us from the slave field to the main house and beyond. We grow with him as he changes from a cowering urchin who’s never owned a pair of shoes or soaked in a bathtub, to an outwardly confident (inside he questions just about every decision he makes) young apprentice. I’d like to say there’s romance in Jerzy’s life, but something about the magic makes Vinearts’ little soldiers flaccid.

But Change is a-comin’! Weird things have been happening. Strange never-before-seen magics have been popping up and causing deadly root-glow and making gross monsters and influencing people to do bad things. Some of the Vinearts are concerned, including Jerzy’s stone-cold master, Malech (early on, he casts judgment on an accident-prone child-slave with the simple order, “Kill it.” So we don’t like him much). Malech senses that Jerzy has some strong mojo, and it might be just the thing to, I’m not sure, use his power to win over the other steeped-in-tradition Vinearts before the mysterious causer-of-weird-things destroys its competition? Malech has cultivated our young hero for something, but by the time we get to the end of this first book, we have no idea what.

In fact, Flesh and Fire ends rather abruptly, but it’s forgivable. We know there’s a second and probably a third book coming, so we don’t need resolution for the many dangling plot threads. Personally, since we also know the old traditions are going to have to be flaunted in order to stop this “new” havoc-causing magic, I hope Gilman lets poor Jerzy figure out why drinking magic wine makes his member droop. If he could overcome that unfortunate side effect, maybe the next book will have a little more flesh and fire.


  1. This is a snide and aggressively cute review by someone whose knowledge of culture and mythology seems to be limited to Christianity. I suppose if all you have is a hammer, every book to be reviewed looks a lot like a nail.

  2. If you're going to call someone "snide" (quite unreasonably, in my view) I have to suggest you not hide behind an anonymous login, and explain exactly why you would say such a thing.

    I haven't read this book, but even so, it is blindingly clear that any writer in English who doesn't want his character compared to Jesus Christ had better reconsider the name, "Sin Washer."

  3. You are entitled to your opinion, of course, (to Anonymous) but I am more than a little perplexed at the speculative ad hominem nature of the criticisms.

    I second Dorkismo -- I see "Sin Washer," I think it is far from unreasonable in the English-speaking world to draw the Jesus parallel (it would be a lot more unreasonable to mince around it). If the author was thinking of some other redeemer-figure, or just a generic one, I have a hard time imagining she wasn't PERFECTLY aware that a lot of people in her reading audience would think of Jesus nevertheless.