Solin Felwing has never had an easy life. Second son to the King of the Drankanthropes, Solin was bullied and beaten by his brother, Crown Prince Varin, and learned early that no matter how cruel, depraved, or horrible Varin was, no one would curb the violent tendencies of the next ruler, not even his small group of noble friends. Being a rare illusory mage, studious, and proficient in telekinetic and fire magicks, Solin becomes dependent on his magicks for protection, but this also makes him increasingly different and emotionally isolated from his few friends.
After more than a millennium of life and various bitter betrayals (including false imprisonment), Solin is prickly, distrustful, and self-reliant. When an attempt to invite Earth to join an interplanetary alliance known as The Daerlyvian Federation ends in a bombing and bloodshed, Solin’s friendship with the perpetrator, combined with his less than sterling reputation, paints him a monster. Stripped of his magicks and exiled to Earth, Solin finds himself seeking redemption. With the help of Sam (one of the few humans that know about the reality of magic, otherworldly creatures, and the constantly open portal that allows transportation between Earth and Solin’s home planet, Cydrithenna), Solin finds himself volunteering in a soup kitchen.
If adjusting to a human body and life without the magick that protected and cloaked him most of his life isn’t hard enough to navigate, Solin must also contend with his best friend Jemier’s uncertain feelings and intermittent visits, flirtations, and the ethics of dating under a presumed identity and with unseen enemies trying to kill him.
Fair warning– for those looking for a romance, this is not it. There are several people for whom Solin expresses attraction and the one romantic relationship given any page time has nothing to do with Jemier. That being said, I like Flicker and think it’s a solid sci-fi/fantasy debut. However, it’s one of those books filled with some really good writing, characters, and narrative elements that is also hampered a bit by its inconsistent use of the writing tools it employs to tell its story. Some elements come together well to create a solid picture, such as the basic structure and history of Drakonian society. However, the political structures Tybush introduces via the Federation, the Shadowfall Alliance, and various political machinations are a bit less solid. This lack wouldn’t have been quite so noticeable if much of the dialogue and inner thoughts during conversations didn’t coyly circle around these weaker elements, particularly in regards to what Solin did on Earth five years ago that made him persona non grata. The characters discuss the events in a way that made me feel as if I had missed something, or worse, that I was a rude eavesdropper whose presence is unwelcome so me understanding wasn’t important. This disengaged me from the story, and was compounded by how Flicker uses flashbacks and first-person POV.
When it comes to the various narrative POVs, I’m pretty fluid so long as their execution doesn’t detract or distract from the story; unfortunately, Flicker does just that at times. The main benefit of telling a story in first person is to create a sense of intimacy between reader and narrator; whether it be a sense of companionship, fascinated horror, or the gamut of emotions in between, first person should provide a measure of closeness that helps draw the reader into the narrative. Additionally, it should give insight into the narrator, even the subjectivity inherent in this viewpoint can provide information about the character’s personality, drives, goals, etc. Discovering a character is unreliable can tell the reader as much as if they are honest to a fault. In a few ways, Flicker’s inconsistent use of first-person served more to aggravate and distance me from the story rather than engage me.
On the one hand, the POV successfully portrays Solin as a pretty complex character whose entire existence and motivations are shaped by his upbringing and the ways it forced him to hide and conform, while also complicating his relationships. On the other, Solin often swings from one set of conflicting descriptors to another when thinking about his own history, feelings, and relationships. One moment, Jemier is his dearest friend and the person who knows him best and the next, he’s untrustworthy and never really knew Solin at all. Solin reflects more than once on his and Sam’s mutual contempt and disdain, yet other times his words indicate contrition and a history in which Sam should feel animosity towards Solin, when it’s clear that Sam doesn’t. While some back and forth/emotional swings can indicate growth, emotional confusion, or conflict, etc., the constant shifts of perspective (sometimes from one sentence to the next) became distracting. Solin’s not an unreliable narrator; his characterization is simply inconsistent, which further pulled me out of the story.
This sense of detachment from Solin’s journey isn’t helped by the story’s use of flashbacks. To me, flashbacks tend to be most useful when they are integrated in a way that is consistent and has some connection to the character’s current emotions, circumstances, motivations, i.e. some kind of connective tissue so that they don’t seem jarring or random. While the flashbacks are mostly in temporal order (from youth to adulthood), often there is a disconnect between them and Solin’s present, as well as seemingly no pattern for them.
This highlights one of my main frustrations with the story—the opaqueness regarding the premise’s Inciting Incident. The narrative only sprinkles partial facts and ambiguous clues about this life changing event, while offering advancement of multiple potential love interests, reflections upon the shortcomings of human society, and in-depth exploration of all the other major events in Solin’s life. Given that the only solid conversation Sam and Solin have about The Event and the action described in the blurb doesn’t occur until most of the way through the story, it makes the story and blurb seem structured as sequel bait.
This excerpt exemplifies some of the elements I found great and frustrating:
I could not allow myself to relive the memory of my friend’s death while so many relied upon my work in the kitchen. The seeds of that tragedy had been planted with my brother’s murder, but sometimes when I replayed the years between Varin’s and Dorais’s deaths, I didn’t always find shame. I found moments of intense emotion and glorious destruction that exhilarated me. Things I had done prior to arriving on Gaia that I would do again if given the chance. My rehabilitation could not begin until I viewed these deeds as wrong. Perhaps I’d never had it in me to be truly good. Denying that I took pleasure in some of my sins felt like a lie, and I could not lie to myself. It did not align with my quest.
It is compelling, well-written character motivation and personality development that, frustratingly, isn’t always furthered/supported by the narrative. There are two memories related to Varin’s murder, which are very focused and gives many specifics, context, and clarity to Solin’s relationship with Jemir and other Drakon friends. Yet, there are no flashbacks of the time between Varin and Dorias’s deaths; nothing to show those “moments of intense emotion and glorious destruction.” Moreover, whatever “lot of bad for the greater good” referenced in the blurb is not shown in the flashbacks; Solin makes some questionable choices and has one moment of contemplating something bad to protect someone, but nothing to the extent implied.
Despite some of the unsteady narrative choices and the vague impression that Flicker was padded structured to make reading the sequel necessary to get the complete story, I still found it an enjoyable sci-fi/fantasy story, and I will probably read some of Tybush’s future work. There are many things to like about the story, including the soup kitchen crew, a handsome barista that make perfect lattes, and a Drakon navigating human norms and the internet. As I can be picky about my SF/fantasy, my expectations were probably a bit too high; had the story been straight fish-out-of-water contemporary, I would have liked it more as these are some of strongest narrative elements.