Touch Of Fire
by Maria Zannini, fantasy (2008)
Samhain Publishing, $5.50, ISBN 978-1-60504-031-8

Touch Of Fire is set in a fantasy setting that is supposed to be a post-apocalyptic version of Earth. How could I not love a world where Mickey Mouse is revered as an ancient god of merriment? Folks have rediscovered magic, it seems, because our heroine, Leda of the Gaia Order of Mages, is a fire mage. The Gaia Order comprises earth mages but the story of how Leda ends up with the earth mages is one that I think is best left to readers to find out for themselves or I will never be able to finish writing this review.

The fae are considered scholars of history and protectors of the world from magical stuff that can destroy it but they remain mostly aloof from plainfolks. The magical folks and the non-magical folks, of which our hero Greyhawke Tams is one, are not on best terms with each other as the fae consider the plainfolks savages and the plainfolks in turn view the fae with suspicion and mistrust. But they all have to co-exist as they all have their own roles to play in keeping order and peace.

Our hero Grey specializes in discovering and excavating relics from the old world. Recently, he unearthed a trove of things that were soon seized by the higher authorities, but he managed to keep a few trinkets for himself. One is a small statuette of a mouse standing on two legs called Mee-kee which he was told to be the deity of merriment in the old world. He wears it around his neck for luck. I know, people from the future are so cute sometimes. The other relic is a book that he can't read. He uses the occasional page to wrap things up or write on, and it just happened that one of those pages ended up in the hands of the wrong person. This person can read the page and realizes at once that the book from which the page originates from contains Very Special Secrets that he can use to do the usual things that bad guys do like rule the universe and all. The timing can't be worse, though - Grey had the book stolen from him shortly before the story begins.

Leda is charged to recover the book but Grey has no reason to trust any of her kind. Her own prejudices and haughty attitude don't endear her to Grey so needless to say, these two have a lot of issues to settle between them before they can save the world and make beautiful babies.

I like the world that Ms Zannini has created. It's well-actualized and interesting, without being too cheesy or overly sexualized. Which is to say, no magic soulmate sex stuff here, thank goodness. I also like how Ms Zannini seamlessly weaves the more fantastical elements here without beating me in the head via bizarre capitalizations. Even the names are easy on the eyes and can be spoken aloud easily without overuse of the letters W, X, Y, and Z. Okay, Greyhawke is a little bit cheesy, but I'd take that over, say, Gryxhywke.

The story is interesting and the pacing is pretty good. But I am not too fond of the fact that the heroine is quite inept here. The only thing that she does with anything remotely resembling efficiency is to hoard up reasons to blame herself over things that go wrong. There is also a disconnect between what the author tells me about Leda and what Leda turns out to be in this story. I'm told that Leda is a seductress, an expert poisoner - a skilled woman that can seduce and manipulate a man like Grey, in other words. But what Leda turns out to be here is a bit of a mess. Sometimes she's very ardent and passionate about the causes that she believes to be good, but she has more enthusiasm than actual ability. She doesn't seem like a seductress either, just a rather naïve woman who just happens to have had sex before but still remains pretty inexperienced when it comes to getting an upper hand in such matters.

The hero is much better in comparison but then again, anyone cast in the role of the capable person is surely better off than the one who plays the inept damsel. To be fair, the author's portrayal of Leda isn't too bad apart from Leda's inexplicable inability to get things done right when she's supposed to be good at these things. Leda and Grey have to confront and re-examine their various prejudices about each other and I believe Ms Zannini has done a pretty good job in portraying her characters' eventual change of feelings for each other credibly. The dialogs can be on the stilted and clunky side at times, but there is ample character growth here to make me happy.

Touch Of Fire is definitely one memorable story, mostly because I find the setting to be a very interesting one and I would definitely love to pay the world another visit. I find the story interesting enough as well to go some way in making up for the shortcomings in the heroine's characterization. All in all, this is a most interesting debut effort indeed.

Rating: 84

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