Length: Novel (316 pages)
Rating:3.5 stars out of 5
A Guest Review by LenaLena
Review Summary: Solid oriental fantasy story that missed a few things that would have made it great.
In an exotic and magical land, Shuibai, a lowly bucket-maker, is appointed Fire Warden. He surprises and annoys everyone by taking his job seriously. Yet as he attempts to keep his city safe from fire, he finds his own life in peril as he stumbles across dangerous secrets.
Mysterious foes are smuggling illegal guns into his city, and they will stop at nothing, not even arson, kidnapping, and murder, as they wage their secret war. He is helped by the man he loves, the handsome but crippled ex-firefighter, Zashi, a man tormented by demons of his own.
Is the Fire Dragon real, or is the truth far more sinister?
Kei is known as the author of the gay pirate series ‘Pirates of the Narrow Seas’, which I have to admit have not read. This particular book ended up as an Amazon Prime loan on my kindle, the blurb sounded interesting, so I went for it, having no expectations at all. So it feels kind of weird to be saying that the book didn’t quite meet my expectations, but I guess I am talking about the expectations I developed while reading the first part of it.
The book is a Fantasy in an oriental setting, mostly medieval, but with guns. There are rigid castes in this matriarchal society, with the untouchables like Shuibai at the bottom of the heap. The story is a fairly standard ‘young man overcomes the odds to rise above his station and get his boy’ tale. The interesting thing is that the story is set around the development of a fire department in a city built of paper screens and bamboo. And those are the best parts of the story. The fires are described with passion and excitement, the innovations Shuibai implements are fun. The whole story is fun in a rooting for the underdog kind of way. Combined with the barely-there love story (and no sex), I am guessing this is a Young Adult novel, although I haven’t seen it classified as that specifically.
There were a number of things that struck me as weird, though. Shuibai seems so servile and insecure most of the time, but then he just blows up at people without any warning. No seething internally first, or any type of buildup. Also, he is so skeptic that the paranormal stuff comes as a complete surprise about 2/3 into the story. I know, the blurb says ‘magical land’ but that’s really not how it reads for most of the book. For all of the ritualized distance between the common folk and the divine Emperor, it seems completely odd for the latter to just come riding into town to converse with Shuibai at least 3 times in the last bit of the book. And for a society that is supposedly run by women, there sure are a whole lot of men in positions of power, not only the Fire Lord and the Generals, but also the mob ruler on the other side of the law. In fact, the women seem to run the town councils (in a totally obstructionist way, btw, is there even one woman who doesn’t hinder our hero?) and not much else.
Personally, I could have done without all the paragraphs-long descriptions of what everyone is wearing. In a society obsessed with status, it is probably important to know how to read people’s status from their clothes, but it stops the narration dead in its tracks for almost a page or so every time someone arrives on the scene. Even people we’ve met before, including Shuibai himself, needs to have his clothes mentioned every time he goes out. Even when we’re already familiar with the outfit.
The end feels abrupt and a bit sloppy. As if the author got tired of telling the story and wanted to move on to something else. So this happened, that happened, we suddenly have some random POV shifts to secondary characters, yada yada yada…. happily ever after. This story deserved a more fleshed out conclusion.
Kei’s writing overall is vivid and engaging (if we ignore the long winded clothing descriptions), and he does construe a decent plot, so I am definitely interested in checking out the pirate books based on my experience with this one.