Rating: 5 stars
Nine hundred years ago in the land of Pozhar, Zhar Ptitsa, god of souls and rebirth, nearly destroyed all his people in a fit of rage. To stop him, a mage broke him into 1,000 pieces and scattered them into the souls of people present and not yet born throughout the land. Now the world is dying. For some, the only way to save it is to resurrect the Lost Gods. For others, they would sacrifice everything, including themselves, to make sure that never happens.
The Sacred Texts call those whose souls carry pieces of the god Vessels. The people of Pozhar so fear the rebirth of Zhar Ptitsa, that they have systematically hunted down and sacrificed the Vessels through the years. As one Vessel is thrown on the flames, another is called into awareness by magical means. One by one, nine hundred and ninety-eight Vessels have been sacrificed on the alter of fire and rebirth. Now only two Vessels remain, unaware that their souls contain pieces of a god.
Raz and Pechal are two of the best thieves in the Kingdom. When Ailill, a White Beast of Verde, hires Ivan and his a band of mercenaries, called the Wolves of Pozhar, to steal back a piece of sacred jewelry, there are only two thieves capable of such a high profile theft. For the jeweled comb is in the hands of the Minister of Magic who lives within the castle, and only Pachal has been successful in entering without rousing the guards. Raz has been looking for that retirement job, one where his fee is so high that he and Peshal can buy a small farm and become honest again. He worries constantly about his best friend, who is much younger than he is and so fragile. This theft will see an end to their life of constant hunger, rags for clothes, and fear of constant imprisonment. He agrees to take this mission and join the diverse gang of mercs, thieves, and noblemen.
As the small band prepares to steal back the jewels, the hunt resumes with fervor to identify, capture, and sacrifice the last two Vessels on the alter inside the Cathedral of Sacred Fires. For the king, Tsar Zarya, is dying, the snowfall is earlier and heavier than ever before, and the people grow weary of the killing of innocents. Dym, the High Priest of Pozhar, is desperate to finish the sacrifices and set in motion his long held plans. But the best thieves are hard to catch. What will happen when they realize they are the last Vessels of Pozhar?
The Lost Gods is turning into such a stunning series, diverse in content and emotional flavor, complicated plots populated with complex, sympathetic, all too human characters that will make you laugh and weep, sometimes on the same page. Treasure was a rousing adventure on the high seas, with dragons, princes, mermaids, and hidden agendas. For all its title, Burning Bright heads in another direction, more localized in geographical area and deeper in content while still continuing with the overall theme of sacrifice and predestination.
Pozhar is a kingdom of fire and rebirth. Its citizens’ eyes and hair carry the colors of fire, from the deepest of reds, to red hot oranges and yellows. They greet each other with “May the fires warm and greet you.” Their epithets use adjectives such as “scorching idiot,” to the affectionate “little sparks,” to shutting someone up with an abrupt “douse it.” Fire and ash are always with them. Yet now the snows come early and often, and the formerly hearty and gregarious people are losing their well-known warmth as the constant killing, squabbling, and conflict takes its toll on the population. Through the eyes of each character, you get a real feel of a nation falling apart from the ground up.
The story is told from the POV of several of the main characters. In other books I’ve read this technique sometimes renders the story disorientating. Here it gives us immediate access into the thoughts and emotions of each character, which is crucial when showing the impact the sacrifice of the Vessels has on each of them. The death of innocents is an explosive emotional theme and it is essential to our ability to empathize with the characters to grasp what this means to them. Especially the High Priest Dym who personally attends to each Vessel before he sees them to their death in the flames. He is tormented by doubt, wavering between his belief that the sacrifices are necessary to achieve his goal and the actuality of being the one to watch each and every one die consumed by flames, burned alive before his eyes. Dym would be so easy to hate if you were unable to feel what this has cost him, his unrelieved pain and anguish hidden behind his calm resolve.
Then there is Lord Nikolai Krasny, Duke of Alkaev and Advisor to the Tsar. He was introduced in Treasure and his promise as a fascinating character there is fulfilled here in Burning Bright. Brilliant in demeanor and mind, cold in character, his vision is large in scope. He’s very aware of the conflict within his nation, court intrigue is a mere game compared to the losses he has already endured. His sister was a Vessel and the only man he has ever loved refuted him and now lays dying. His remote, sarcastic voice is a needed contrast to those characters grounded in obligation and quiet suffering.
Also reappearing from Treasure is the wonderfully slutty and adventuresome White Beast of Verde, Ailill. The noble shapeshifter brings a much needed levity and sexuality with him. I adored the brief glimpse of him onboard the Kumita and was thrilled to see how heavily involved he is here. Ivan and his band of mercenaries, the Wolves of Pozhar, form a sort of outlaw Greek chorus. They don’t care much for religion, and see no reason for the sacrifices. Loyalty to each other and their own flexible set of morals/rules is what guides them. Finally, there is Raz and Pachal, the little sparks and our endearing young thieves. They become the heart and heartbreak of this story. You will quickly come to love them, as do all the denizens of the markets and brothels, and poor of the city. Derr has almost done too well a job with these two because you care for them so deeply and root for them with all your heart. I am not sure I have forgiven her yet for some of the events here but forgiveness also seems to be a common thread throughout the Lost Gods saga, so I am waiting to see how it all plays out.
Each book in this series centers on one Kingdom and its Lost God. In Treasure it was Kundou and the Three Dragons of the Storm. Burning Bright is the story of Poshar and its Lost God, Zhar Ptitsa. Book three is called Stone Rose and features the kingdom of Pierdre with its Lost God, the Basilisk, to be followed by the books Poison and Chaos. Slowly, each convoluted puzzle piece falls into place as the tale of the Lost Gods is painstakingly assembled. Like a Rubic’s Cube, each story has the same intricate structure. Each character plays multiple rolls, each supposed dead end reveals a hidden passage, a character of seeming little consequence later reappears much changed in status and power. Death and rebirth are constant companions. Little things that bothered me in Treasure are resolved (somewhat) here, but the final solutions and answers to all our questions may not come until the very end of the last book in the Lost Gods series.
Can one love a book when you find no joyfulness in reading it? For me the answer is yes. I gloried in the tale, even as I had the taste of ash in my mouth. In fact I will reread this one and will probably hold the entire series close. This is not a tale of romance, although love plays its part. Derr is giving us an incredible epic, spanning the ages, continents, and even death. Each book should be read in succession and as a part of the series to get the full impact and role each kingdom and its people will play in the final battle for the Lost Gods. You will both love and hate Burning Bright. Have several boxes of tissue handy. I did and still do. I cannot wait for Stone Rose to come out and the epic of the Lost Gods to continue. Kudos to Derr for giving us two remarkable books in what promises to be one of the most extraordinary fantasy series in recent memory.
Cover: The covers are growing on me. Each cover is a map of the kingdom involved, done in a way to resemble parchment. The color choice carries over from the colors of the people of each kingdom. Treasure has a blue cover to go with a kingdom by the sea and its people with hair and eyes the color of the sea. Burning Bright has an orange or burnt cover perfect for citizens of Pozhar with hair and eyes the color of fire. A simple concept for a cover of a book complex in story and character.