Heart on Fire
Oh, what a letdown, when a series starts off so strongly (I nominated Bouchet for debut author of the year in 2016) but can’t stick the landing. Cat Fisa, married to the warlord Griffin, has made progress overthrowing the corrupt Alphas ruling her land, but the biggest challenge of all remains: Alpha Fisa, Cat’s powerful and vicious mother.
Cat and Griffin are still solid. I like practical, competent Griffin and his unwavering love for family and faith in Cat, but I wish he’d had more to do than just be Cat’s rock amidst her flailing quest for confidence. Cat, meanwhile, has legitimate mental and physical (her unreliable god-given powers, her pregnancy) issues to work through, but does them in such an over-narrated and navel-gazing way that it becomes annoying. Also, I question the idea that people called their fetuses ‘Little Bean’ before ultrasounds and embryology.
The biggest problem in Heart on Fire is pacing. The first chapter begins with a confrontation in which Piers, Griffin’s brother, hates Cat sufficiently to summon the war god Ares to take Cat away permanently. Obviously, Cat doesn’t want to go to endless war, but Ares has to have the soul of one of the people present. Identities are revealed – it turns out people Cat knew were gods in disguise – in a way that starts to feel silly, like Scooby-Doo (“The monster was the goddess Demeter all along!”). It takes FIVE CHAPTERS of talking and mental narration by Cat for this one issue to be resolved the way anybody with two brain cells will predict from the moment Piers casts his spell. The whole book is this way – 418 pages of words; under 200 pages of content. It’s ironic that a stretch of time of the book is set in Tartarus, the Greek afterlife of unchanging torment (and even more ironic that that’s the most interesting section of the book).
Now that we are in literal deus-ex-machina territory, that becomes problem two. Once gods enter a plot, not just setting plans in motion but walking among the mortals, the actions of the characters start to feel less purposeful. Every problem the characters face could be solved by gods, so why don’t they solve them? (Don’t worry, they’ll justify themselves at length). When the gods DO resolve issues, as when Ares reveals a new power to Cat, that’s a problem too, since we need to know why the gods didn’t act earlier. Ares says Cat “wasn’t ready” for her power before. That’s a cop-out made lamer by the fact that she wasn’t ready when he DID show it to her. Plus, they argue about it while Griffin is literally trapped in a burning building, which is a perfect example of how everybody in this book but Griffin needs to shut up.
There is one satisfying, well-crafted fight scene, but the main ending to the conflict with Cat’s mother is weirdly anticlimactic. There’s something to like about the boldness of that – playing off of our expectations for a showdown – but the novel is so flawed that it reads less like ‘interesting subversion’” and more like ‘this author has lost control of this book’.
Heart on Fire is annoying rather than awful, and if it hadn’t come from a series I’d had such good experiences with, it might have scored higher. Disappointing always hurts me as a reader more than bad-with-no-expectations. I can’t help but wonder if the author spent a long time on her début and then rushed things once she was under contract. Regardless, “rushing” is what you, as a reader, will be doing. The most compelling reason to read this book is closure, and while it’s good for Cat and Griffin, supporting characters are left so unresolved (and some don’t survive) that yet another dimension of reading becomes frustrating. If you really want to see the ending, get it from the library and skim.