It's the characters and their relationships that make this book such a treasure. The plot of this story is not actually especially original. A magical stone, which protects the city of Ischia from being flooded with lava, is stolen and has to be retrieved within only a few days if the city is to be saved from destruction by the volcano. An interesting idea, but no big deal.
But there are three gorgeous principals involved - a prince, third in line to the throne, and therefore superfluous to everybody; a thief, lithe, intelligent, cynical; and a young woman from another country, who is also the most powerful wizard around, a wizard of the Nine.
The prince, Darvish, has lived a life of self-indulgent drinking, womanizing and 'manizing'. As always in Tanya Huff's works, there is an unfussy and easy-going acceptance of gayness and bisexuality - in this world, your sexual orientation is almost everywhere quite simply irrelevant. A potential danger to the Crown Prince, because he is charming and popular with hoi polloi, he is implicitly encouraged in his debaucheries, while his behaviour is officially deplored. Yet despite everything, he retains his heart and – in the end – his honour and integrity. He is perhaps the most likable of the three - flawed and all too human, yet courageous, kind, gentle despite his size, and ultimately a faithful friend, and a hero.
The thief, Aaron, comes from a culture where men who love other men get burnt at the stake. Tanya Huff uses this barbarous tribal society to make some very pointed comments on our own culture, and without being preachy or boring, contrasts it favourably with the cultures of Ischia and, it seems, every other nation in her created world. The thief watched his father flog his beloved cousin and his lover, Ruth, to death. In consequence of both these things, he has built up walls around his mind to protect him from caring. His courage and skill and coldness have made him the best thief in the city. But the hard diamond of his character is flawed; and without help, without love, it will crack, and he will be destroyed.
The wizard, Chandra, might be a powerful wizard of the Nine, but she is still feeling her way into her skills, as well as the more subtle skill of understanding other human beings. She gets betrothed to the prince, without the wishes of either of them being consulted by their parents. She believes she will lose her powers if she loves or makes love to anyone. Anyway, she's far too busy being a wizard to bother with being a mere princess. So she ups sticks from her faraway country (where she is the heir apparent) to tell the prince just that.
Aaron falls into Darvish's hands when a theft goes wrong. For reasons the prince himself doesn't quite understand, he keeps the thief away from the royal torturers, and saves his life. When he obliquely expresses an interest in the thief, the latter makes it abundantly clear that he is not interested in a relationship (too much pain; terror of tenderness; visions of blackened corpses on stakes). The wizard watches these two, knowing the inevitable, and sighs "men!"
When the stone gets stolen, the two men get sent off to find it. Ignoring everything the prince says, the wizard goes with them – and it's just as well she does. On the way, the strengths of each are needed. And the weaknesses of each nearly cause disaster.
The inevitable happens. The prince realises that the thief is real, and has real feelings, and that he matters to him more than anybody else he has known. The thief comes to terms with his own emotions, gradually breaking down his walls, and learning to love again. And the wizard, who's been lonely and friendless, realises that she's made two best friends. The changing relationships are beautifully, skilfully and convincingly developed. The sub-themes and sub-plots are well done, too, typical of Huff's stories. The thief's friendship with an irreverent old lady opens the story and (in a way which will give you a lump in your throat and also a smile on your lips) ends it. Chandra's relationship with her father is poignant and real. Darvish's struggle with alcohol is brutally convincing.
There's no explicit sex, but there is something much more subversive: heart-warming, selfless love and affection, between all three.
A lovely tale - to be read when you're feeling depressed about the awfulness of the world, and the selfishness and cynicism of the rich, powerful and falsely religious. You'll wander around for hours afterwards with a glad smile.
A sequel please!
[The Fire's Stone is out of print, though second-hand copies are available from Amazon, Abe Books and Alibris. You can also buy it new in an omnibus volume, Of Darkness, Light and Fire, where it is paired with Gate of Darkness, Circle of Light – itself a novel every bit as charming and satisfying as The Fire's Stone. Of Darkness, Light and Fire is available from The Book Depository, which delivers post-free worldwide, and from Amazon]
Nikolaos Thiwerspoon is the author of several romantic m2m and bisexual novels and short stories. He lives in country Victoria, Australia.
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A charming, heart-warming tale of a prince, a thief and a wizard.
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