“Scorch” thought he knew everything. As an orphan discovered and rescued by Master McClintock, the Guild Master of the Guardian’s Guild, Scorch has always known what his path in life would be: He is going to be a Guardian, doing good in the world. Saving people, righting wrongs, being honorable and maybe just a little bit famous with lovers from one end of the kingdom to the other. When he is tapped out for a special and secret mission to save the life of the High Priestess from assassins, Scorch knows his time had come at last.
He is off with a sword at his belt, whiskey in his flask, and a spring in his step. Everything is perfect, just the way it is supposed to be, until he takes a drink too many in an inn. He goes to bed with the barmaid and wakes up with her lifeless body beside him and soon finds himself in chains, beaten and dragged away by slavers. There he meets Kio and Julian, two other hapless people among the many captured victims. They are dragged out in pairs, made to fight to the death for the amusement of The Circle.
Scorch has never killed anyone before and it breaks something in his spirit that the first person whose life he takes is another innocent. But it was either that or die himself. Fortunately for Scorch, his luck — and the that of the slavers — changed the day they brought in the man in black. Silent, stoic, and a skilled killer, he helps Scorch get free. Returning to his quest to warn the High Priestess, Scorch finds himself joined by Kio, a skilled herbalist, Vivid, the man in black, and Julian. All of them have their reasons for heading to the High Priestess’s temple. Kio and Julian to join her monks, Scorch to save her life, and Vivid for his own purposes.
In the desert, Scorch is forced to reveal himself for what he truly is: an elemental. A creature born with the power of fire, able to set fire to candles or forests, who can take the form of a dragon. Unfortunately for Scorch, no one else is what they truly seemed to be either. What do you do when everything you thought you knew was a lie?
From Guardian of the Kingdom to assassin, Scorch’s life is turned upside down. The only constant, the only saving grace in all of it is Vivid. He keeps Scorch at arm’s length, while never quite pushing him away, protecting him from slavers, monks, and assassins alike. He never says yes to any of Scorch’s pleading looks … but he never says no. He is the closest thing Scorch had to a friend, the only touchstone he had left. He’d do anything for Vivid, even face the dungeons again.
This is a story with a lot of plot. The book has over 500 pages of story and I don’t want to give too much away as things lead to other things, which hint at even more things, until things turn out to be things you hadn’t thought they’d be. There are some interesting twists and turns, which move this from a standard coming-of-age in a sword and sorcery world to something a little more fun.
Scorch is, as all young heroes are, good at heart. That doesn’t make him particularly smart or clever, but it does mean that he tries very hard to do what he knows is the right thing. Having lost his parents at an early age, he’s clung to the guildmaster of the Guardians as a father figure and protector. When he meets Vivid, he has both a love interest and a protector all in one. They’re close to the same age, but Vivid is more mature, more cynical, and, frankly, more competent. Again and again he saves the day, or knows what must be done in a situation, and Scorch follows his lead like a puppy. That’s not to say that the emotions aren’t sincere, but they’re a bit… needy and juvenile. When Vivid tells him to go away, Scorch sulks and goes to live in a cave in the woods. When Vivid doesn’t want talk to him, it’s the end of the world. And when Vivid smiles or laughs, Scorch knows he’d do anything it took to make Vivid happy again.
Because we only see Vivid through Scorch’s rose-tinted gaze, it’s hard to remember that Vivid, too, is a young man with a difficult past. As a child he was kidnapped and tortured until he was rescued by an assassin. He never speaks of what happened to his parents. His body is covered in the scars and marks left on him, and while he was trained by the assassins, they’re not exactly a warm and loving family. He’s a private person, choosing not to spend hours a day talking — unlike Scorch — but, while he shows his irritation often, he never actually tells Scorch to go away. Just… stand back a few feet. Vivid is extremely reserved and private (privacy being something hard to come by in a den if thieves and killers), and disinclined to overtly encourage Scorch, so his delicate efforts both to keep the other man and his affections at arm’s length, while not exactly saying “leave me alone,” come across confusing even at the best of times.
When Scorch practically shouts that he loves Vivid — while in yet another dungeon — he realizes for the first time that this isn’t just an infatuation brought about by hero worship and admiration. As difficult as Vivid is, as many mixed signals as he gives, as stand-offish and afraid as he is, Scorch loves him. The easy parts, the admirable parts, and the annoying ones. The way he’s always right, the way he calls Scorch an idiot, the way he comes back again and again to save Scorch. Vivid gave his life for Scorch, and Scorch gave him his heart in return.
It’s a difficult, thorny, and fraught relationship that isn’t going to fix itself overnight with a declaration of true love, even if it’s made while a mountain falls on top of you. Vivid may feel as strongly as Scorch — how could he not feel something for someone who not only thinks he hung the stars, but would kill anyone who dared lay a hand on him, assassin, or guardian or monk — but he’s not the sort of person to suddenly start telling people how he feels. The author handles Vivid’s cautious and even cold manners well and believably. When he and Scorch do finally do more than talk — when Vivid finally lets Scorch do more than talk — it feels natural and believable and right.
However much I appreciated how the relationship was built, how carefully these two opposites came together, there were still parts of this book that just plain didn’t work for me. The pacing is frenetic and it feels like each chapter has some new, great, and terrible event. Betrayal after betrayal and never a moment for the characters to breathe. Not that it feels like they need to. Scorch doesn’t have much of a reaction to the slave he killed, any more than to watching Vivid murder a member of their party because he was scared. Death has no impact and neither does anything else. The various betrayals and someone surprisingly turning out to be a crazy serial killer all have the same reaction: meh. Scorch grew up as a sheltered young man, but all of this murder and intrigue don’t matter to him as much as loosing his red boots do. There’s a moment — but only one — where Scorch has a reaction to any of this, and that’s when he has to revisit the inn where the barmaid died. If only some of that had been carried through the rest of the book, if only some attention had been given to how, if at all, Scorch was coping. Instead, it’s his fixation on Vivid that carries the book. The plotting works. I think there were a few too many stops along the way, but they didn’t detract from the story and they weren’t poorly done, they just made it longer.
However — and yes, there’s a however — there are, scattered throughout the book, interesting and distracting word choices. I don’t want it to seem as though I’m mocking the author, but when someone seems to be using a thesaurus to add more color to their writing, they should also use a dictionary to make certain the atmospheric phrase or word actually means what they want it to mean. Saying a queen looked glamorous can work, but saying that the floor is covered with scattered adornments doesn’t bring clothing to mind, and having someone’s voice described as being “prosperous with authority” doesn’t … doesn’t quite work the way it may have been intended to. There’s also a moment when an apothecary, living in a fantasy story taking place somewhere in a middle-ages adjacent world starts using emojis in her writing that made me almost stamp a DNF on this book. Breaking the fourth wall to wink at the reader, fine — in the right story. When this is the single, solitary point, it doesn’t work. I almost expected this to be followed by Scorch texting Vivid some anime slashfic about pokemon. Maybe it’s just me, but I prefer to not see pointless anachronisms. Either make it count, or don’t do it.
It’s odd to say about a 500 plus page book with a snarl of plots, but I wish there’d been a little more story to balance out the relationship. The slow burning romance between Scorch and Vivid was handled well, and I appreciated how the author had Scorch ask for and get consent before he did anything, but I would have liked to see a little more acknowledgement of the consequences of their actions and a bit more world building.