Review: Firelight by Kristen Callihan

Tuesday, February 7, 2012
Title: Firelight
Genre: historical fiction, supernatural fiction, romance novel-ish
Series: Darkest London #1
Pages: 289 (Nook ARC edition)
Published: February 2012
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 4/5

London, 1881
Once the flames are ignited . . .

Miranda Ellis is a woman tormented. Plagued since birth by a strange and powerful gift, she has spent her entire life struggling to control her exceptional abilities. Yet one innocent but irreversible mistake has left her family's fortune decimated and forced her to wed London's most nefarious nobleman.
They will burn for eternity . . .
Lord Benjamin Archer is no ordinary man. Doomed to hide his disfigured face behind masks, Archer knows it's selfish to take Miranda as his bride. Yet he can't help being drawn to the flame-haired beauty whose touch sparks a passion he hasn't felt in a lifetime. When Archer is accused of a series of gruesome murders, he gives in to the beastly nature he has fought so hard to hide from the world. But the curse that haunts him cannot be denied. Now, to save his soul, Miranda will enter a world of dark magic and darker intrigue. For only she can see the man hiding behind the mask.

Firelight is a great read! I didn't have high expectations going in, but I am glad to say that I was on the wrong foot when starting the gem that is the first in the Darkest London series. One I am both enthusiastic about after finishing and also feel comfortable, almost eager, to recommend to others.  With two such dynamic leads as we have in Archer and Miranda, an enthralling and very fast read, further coupled with a fresh take on 1880's London, Firelight adds up to a prime recipe for both easy reading and instant enjoyment. This is a retelling of the classic tale of Beauty and the Beast, but with a unique supernatural bent. The subtle and/or dry humor spiced throughout ("Think of England, darling.") is a nice touch added to balance the darker story of murder, mystery and betrayal that permeates through Ms. Callihan's evocative read.

The writing of the novel immediately caught my eye - in a very favorable way. Sentences like:

"Mud-thick fog hung low on the ground, refusing to drift off despite the crisp night breeze. It never truly went away, ever present in London, like death, taxes, and monarchy."

appear often and early. Ms. Callihan can certainly set a scene and her version of London at the turn of the century is both compelling and amusing. Most of the time the writing in the novel is pretty and flows with remarkable ease. However, this is a first novel and it is not free from errors. While I just stated my love for the prose, I have to admit at times it did wax occasionally florid with descriptions and dialogue -which is, by rights, a small complaint when the majority of the novel is carried so well. The beginning of Firelight is also a bit rough in comparison - cliches abound and might scare off less forgiving readers, but Callihan hits her stride early on and rarely veers off course after. Firelight may stumble out of the opening gate, it more than gathers steam (and steamy scenes!) as it progresses.

One of the things I enjoyed so much about Firelight  right from the beginning is that the book makes it quite obvious that the beloved story of Beauty and the Beast (even the original La Belle et la Bete) is itself a retelling of the legend of Psyche and Eros. Many retellings are either unaware of the genesis of the story or gloss right over the origins without a nod - which I mean clearly, I am being nitpicky here as such details are not required - just enjoyed by myself. But Callihan does it so well, without detracting from the forward momentum and I liked the subtle allusions and reminders the author inserted into Miranda and Archer's tale. Archer himself is the best part of the whole novel: reimagined and intriguing London and mysterious powers having no claim on the charismatic but tortured hero. I was more iffy on Miranda, especially at the beginning (Aaah - the cliched girl in pants! Can we just please retire this trope already?!) but her strong-headed independence and good attitude quickly catapulted her high in my estimations. Both Archer and Miranda are wonderfully realized characters for the most part: neither one is perfect and neither one should be taken at appearance value. I did have issues with the immediacy and the passion of Archer's feelings for Miranda based on little but looks - it smacks of insta!love - but  happily, and against all expectations, their relationship much more complicated than it appears initially. Miranda, perhaps for the first time, sees in Archer someone that will value a true equal, someone who looks beyond her outside and finds value within. For Archer, Miranda represents acceptance and love in a world that has spurned him - really, the two complement each other quite well and have a relationship to root for..

With Archer an awesome but very noticeable <SPOILER> mix of V from V for Vendetta and Emma Frost from X-Men</SPOILER>, it's easy to say that this one form of supernaturality I've yet to encounter - something to treasure in an overpopulated genre such as this. I really liked the spin the book placed on immortality and am so grateful that Callihan didn't go the vampire route.  So much of this novel is new or created that though I've read numerous UFs set in England, this feels like a retread of none of them. Archer and the mystery of his past/face is more involving than most of the other plotlines involved throughout Firelight. I am sad to say that while Archer's reveal was creative and compelling, I was disappointed in how little and randomly Miranda's powers were utilized. I was on a self-imposed Fire Watch - aka waiting for Miranda to use her powers of fire. At page 77, disappointed. At page 122, still not a lick of flame. At page 135, barely a spark. Finally, more than halfway through the 289 page novel, Miranda's unique abilities are brought to the fore. I wouldn't have minded if say, Archer's mystery were solved by then, but two have two large elements of the plot largely absent for half the book can be quite frustrating. I was also further frustrated by the lack of explanation about Miranda. Archer's past is finally delved into and answers provided, but where/how/why did Miranda acquire her power? No answer is given within Firelight itself but I have hopes that within the next two books, such confusion will be cleared up.

While the fist three-quarters of the novel rush by in a blur of murders, tension and sexual tension, the last fourth is much more involved in the romance of the two leads than the plot. One of the other few places that Firelight falters in its setting up and execution of the mystery of the killer haunting Archer and Miranda. It was easy fairly early on to figure out who, if not their motivation. The mystery simply lacked the alluring mysterious that Archer himself possessed. As a result, it is unraveling his past than catching a cold-hearted murderer that had me turning the pages so swiftly. But for it's few faults and many many instances of win, this is one of my favorite reads so far in 2012. Bonus? It's only $5.99 for ereaders! I can't wait until the next one, Moonglow, the story of Miranda's sister Daisy, comes out later this year!

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