Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Book Review: Tell the Wind and Fire

Tell the Wind and Fire by Sarah Rees Brennan
Clarion Books, 2016

Sarah Rees Brennan is one of my favorite authors, and I also love Dickens in general and A Tale of Two Cities in particular, so when I heard that she was doing a modern Tale of Two Cities with magic, I was thrilled. And Tell the Wind and Fire did not disappoint. It's a thoughtful page-turner, full of Rees Brennan's trademark humor and meditations on family and friendship and revolution and love and choice.

Tell the Wind and Fire is about a city divided between Light and Dark magic, and a girl caught in the middle when the people of the Dark start to fight back against the dominance of the Light and their terrible treatment at the hands of the powerful. "Like Mockingjay but good" is kind of a flip description - and I wouldn't call Mockingjay bad, exactly - but there's truth to it: Tell the Wind and Fire's Lucie is, like Katniss, made into the symbol of a revolution mostly by happenstance and others' actions, but Lucie comes across as much more thoughtful about her situation, and she is legitimately torn and ends up making her own decisions about her future, which makes the novel as a whole much more complex and compelling. And like many Rees Brennan heroines, Lucie is practical in a way I really enjoy - no unthinking "all that matters is love" here.

I like my magic systems to have clearly defined rules, to work in a way that makes it clear that the author knows exactly what's going on even if the reader doesn't have (or need) every detail, and this book certainly fulfills that. And even better, the magic is thoroughly integrated into a political system and a society and culture. Rees Brennan's world-building is great, and really helps this novel feel like its own unique thing even while cleverly using the Tale of Two Cities framework. The world of this novel feels so real that I found myself wanting to read a "nonfiction" history of it, and the political conflicts felt extremely relevant to our world today.

The central love triangle was actually one of the least compelling things for me here - which, not coincidentally, is how I feel about Tale of Two Cities as well. Of course, whether this is problematic depends on your own reading priorities. I didn't really care whether the love triangle grabbed me either way, but I did want to feel Lucie's feelings for boyfriend Ethan slightly more, especially since his doppelganger Carwyn had the "mysterious bad boy" advantage. That said, Ethan was way more interesting than he could have been, and I totally mean that as a compliment - his Dickensian analog Charles Darnay barely made any impression on me at all.

Speaking of Dickens: adaptations always bring up the question of whether the reader must be familiar with the source material to understand and enjoy the new work, and here I'd say absolutely not. Dickens fans will appreciate Rees Brennan's clever use of characters and themes, and there are certainly some fun references, but I'd wholeheartedly recommend Tell the Wind and Fire to any reader looking for complex, funny, heartbreaking fantasy with strong characters and thought-provoking themes. (But then you should go read A Tale of Two Cities too, because it's great, I promise.)

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