“But the Glasgérians worshipped only one thing, and that was Shadow. The domeras. The Conqueror of Light. It sounded terrifying, but for a nation of people who burned in daylight, she could see why the domeras was their savior.”
Finalist in the Annual Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO) #7, “Burn Red Skies” by Kerstin Espinosa Rosero, is a brilliant debut novel that will surely garner its author a lot of attention as a fantasy writer to watch, as her career emerges. There is no doubt, after reading the book, that it was very much a deserving finalist in the noteworthy competition that is SPFBO.
Book One of the “Burn Red Skies” series, the book had many elements that I absolutely adore in fantasy, written exceptionally well.
In “Burn Red Skies”, from multiple POVs, Epsinosa Rosero takes us to – among other fascinating kingdoms and societies – the Fire Realm. This dominion is ruled by the kind of autocratic, repugnant, cruel subjugator in King Morian, who seeks to hold sway over his empire via fear and ruthless domination, and expand his territorial holdings with more of the same, behind the power of imposing elemental magic.
Added to this is the aerial superiority thanks to Morian’s redoubtable general, the feared ‘She-Jackal’, Valerya. Valerya is a rare person – a Summoner: those who have the ability to compel the lost spirits of dragons. With the dragon-spirit, a splendid subordinate like Valerya, seemingly unstoppable armies, and elemental magic behind him, Morian appears unbeatable, his plans for conquest, irresistible.
But unrest is growing amongst the common folk over Morian’s rule, and there are those who, in secret, seek to have him cast down for his cruelty and lust for power above all else.
Dove is one of those common folk, who suffers under the despotism of Morian, but is employed as a servant in Morian’s stronghold. Though Dove is mute, and shunned, even superstitiously feared by certain portions of her society, considered weak due to her disability, Dove is far from powerless. She discovers she has magic of her own, at her command.
At one time, Dove was a favourite of the king, but she has run afoul of him, and is marked for death.
Loyal, kind, and courageous, raised by loving parents who have adopted her, Dove manages to flee the king’s castle, simultaneously embarking on a search for her lost brother. She also becomes entangled with the growing revolution determined to oust Morian from power.
Far away from these events, fearsome sky pirates / smugglers Bard and Dancer will play a role in the coming struggle for power. The veteran Bard has ties to Morian, and his partner, the unpredictable Dancer, has an enormous capacity for depredation and chaos. When these two wildcards – whose motivations would seem to revolve mostly around plunder and mayhem – become involved in the larger stage of happenings, things truly get interesting.
As always, everything starts with the characterization in terms of me reviewing a novel. While I wanted certain players a bit more fleshed out, overall, there was a lot there to like in how Espinosa Rosero drew her characters. Despite what little we truly learn of them, and how much relatively scarce time we spend with each of them, the author still achieved making them fairly memorable.
I applaud the decision to feature a mute protagonist, which could potentially be difficult to write. Espinosa Rosero overcomes any potential difficulty effortlessly, and in a very unique way, and the conversations between Dove and her friends were some of my favourite and most stimulating parts of the book.
I also enjoyed seeing Dove’s evolution from horror and rejection of her powers, to gradual acceptance and welcoming her own abilities, and appreciating what value they could bring to the cause against Morian.
My favourite player, by far, was not the protagonist – though Dove is a marvellous protagonist. Rather my fav was the sometimes mercurial Valerya, right-hand to Morian himself. You know how I love the messy ones.
A flawed character, this daunting military commander, weary of paying a personal toll as the wielder of dragon-power, is ruthless, ambitious, and conflicted. Valerya abides by her own set of principles, that are unshakable, but there is definitely some moral flexibility there, when it comes to this character.
“’Power means a constant battle of choosing the lesser evil. Imagine what worse your Sovereign would do if I weren’t around.’”
There is a great hope and perhaps unrealistic expectation among some of the players that Valerya stands up to Morian, overthrows him, and becomes the saviour of the people, freeing them from Morian’s oppression. But if she does, and succeeds, would she be – as there are some alarming indicators that could signal this – just more of the same type of oppressor?
“As much as she hated Kingsbridge, Valerya had no mercy for rebels. They fought for dreams much greater than they were, and only fools wanted something they couldn’t define. People didn’t need dreams. They needed leadership. Lofty ideas did not fill their bellies ro keep their bodies warm. They needed clothes and food and a stable livelihood, things to get them through the winter. They needed medicans, weavers, builders. Not more idealists. All these insurgents did was cry for equality, for freedom, but how would the Firelands feed a nation of dreamers? If left to their own devices, most people would sit around and pick their asses.”
Bard and Dancer were also fabulous secondary characters, and their storyline, which was dark, hilarious, and highly entertaining, kept me really engaged. Merc, Decker, Wolff, and of course Gryff who is key to Dove’s POV, all figure prominently, and were very interesting.
Some outstanding, and quite heavy themes, handled in exemplary fashion, could be found in “Burn Red Skies”, and I give the author very high marks for this aspect of the book. Race, racial purity, genocide, cruelty, oppression, subjugation, the cost of magic, ‘ends justifying the means’, and more were dealt with in the book. Espinosa Rosero gives the reader a lot to think about, wrapped up in a fast-paced and enthralling tale that whips along at a fairly brisk pace.
The worldbuilding was stunning, though Espinosa Rosero chose not to do a lot of hand-holding with the reader, in terms of exposition on some of its finer points. This might overwhelm some. That said, the world the author creates is truly glorious, replete with amazing features such as: airships, realms centered around fire or ice, floating sky kingdoms, cities built in mountains, and I could go on.
The customs, languages, and cultures are highly inventive. For example, the fashion of ending a conversation by walking away. Some really marvellous details…just in my view a pity we didn’t have more time to understand and explore some of them in more depth.
The magic system is also spectacular. With a declining magic system, weakening as the decades progress, this world is still filled with mages, skinchangers, Swordsuits, magical allergies, and so many other fun and incredible things that are touched on in the book in terms of the supernatural. As noted in the themes, Espinosa Rosero conveys that no magic in her world can be deployed without some sort of cost, and lovers of more hard magic systems will enjoy the consequences the author builds around use of magic.
Espinosa Rosero’s prose was strong, crisp, clear, confident, very accessible, yet sprinkled with that lyrical, slightly more elevated style that lends itself so well to being immersed in fantasy books. There were some really quotable gems of passages that had me pausing to admire them, some of which I’ve included above in this review. I loved Espinosa Rosero’s authorial voice.
Readers might struggle a bit with feeling thrown in the deep end, in parts of this book, but they likely will never be bored, with plenty of action, intrigue, extremely lush and even astonishing world-building, great characters, dazzling magic – and of course dragons, abound.
4.75 stars for “Burn Red Skies”, and I will assuredly be picking up the sequel, “Red Rise Kingdom”!