One of the most poignant books I have read so far this year, “Trials of Fire and Re-Birth” by Edith Pawlicki is a beautiful, enrapturing Asian-inspired fantasy novel about love, loss, gods, faith, reincarnation, body dysphoria, gender, and ultimately, hope. I was truly moved by this book, and so happy I read it!
The story is focused on two main characters, An Ning and Karana. An Ning awakens after disaster strikes a small village called Xiling, in the body of a man. This is extremely disturbing to her, since, to the best of her recollections, she has always been a woman. Still, for the most part, her memory is foggy. Intervening to help save some courtesans who are being bullied by a mob who believe the courtesans are partly to blame for the disaster of Xiling being burned, An Ning moves on to travel with them, and other refugees trying to start anew in the aftermath of the catastrophe.
She eventually discovers, with the help of a particular courtesan who has befriended her, that she has god-like powers, and uses them to help feed her companions. This act causes the refugees to venerate An Ning as a god. It is proven in time that An Ning is indeed a powerful immortal being. In time she establishes her own following, and for centuries going forward is worshiped as a god called Peace Bringer, though she is a very minor deity in the hierarchy of the gods.
One who is not minor in the pecking order of the gods is the God of Destruction, Karana. Karana has lots of family drama, in the main court of the top gods. At one time, he was an exile from the grand court. In addition to this, he is weary of his long life, especially the loss of his many mortal lovers over the centuries.
Moreover, he is not particularly enamoured with being a god in the first place, and is haunted by his turbulent past. Yet the other gods won’t let him shirk his responsibilities, and demand he get to the bottom of a cult that murders women, tied to worship of Karana himself. Karana’s further inquiry into the cult leads him to the village where An Ning is the ruling deity.
A mutual attraction blooms, though Karana has never been drawn to men before, and An Ning had previously believed she was asexual, since she had never wanted either man or woman before meeting Karana. Were these two powerful beings destined to be together all along? Or will their differences, insecurities, and past traumas inevitably keep them apart?
This book may only have been approximately 300 pages, but the character work accomplished in this relatively small page count is astounding. The complexities of both main characters, and the situations they find themselves in, are vividly brought to life. An Ning, who is kind, noble, and benevolent at her core, is troubled by feeling like she is in a body that she does not belong in.
Encountering Karana, and her feelings for him, only compound this issue for her. As An Ning begins to unravel the mysteries that surround her awakening in the ash of the burned village, and how those mysteries are intertwined with the man she loves, we the readers see her courage, fralities, and confusion laid bare.
While there are a lot more shades of grey to Karana, I believe the reader will come to appreciate and admire him, as An Ning loves him, for the inner good that composes his fundamental make-up. Karana can be terrifying, unrepentantly vengeful, and in his blind desire for revenge, obtuse, at times, as the God of Destruction.
But overall he is a good person, and a very sympathetic character that I truly enjoyed reading about. The stories of his lost loves, the inevitability of a god who stays eternally youthful never being able to have lasting (by immortal standards) relationships with mortals whose life spans are destined to be short, makes the reader feel empathy towards Karana.
The auxiliary characters are wonderful. Chika, Akemi, and Miho, the Sea Dragon’s granddaughters, and faithful disciples of An Ning, stole my heart. Bai’s sarcasm and wit as the smartest person (God) in the room, Guleum as a compelling villain, and the compassionate, sensitive yet all-powerful Threefold Goddess, were fantastic additions to the many interesting and diverse characters that populate the pages of “Trials of Fire and Re-Birth”.
The worldbuilding is excellent, lush, Asian-inspired. Pawlick’s world comes replete with blood-thirsty creatures like the Xuezei, palaces contained within magic domes of air or suspended in heaven by the will of the gods alone, immortals, spontaneously formed from…well anything, capricious gods, my favourite, the Bulgae which are are immortal creatures that resemble dogs but made of fire, and so many more amazing characteristics.
There is a rich and colourful history and backstory of many millenia, poetry, gorgeous maps, illustrations, timelines, and family trees interspersed THROUGHOUT the novel at just the right reading juncture (as opposed to at the beginning of the novel or as appendices) that really enhance the reading experience.
There is a glossary of names and places at the end of the book as well. A great magic system, including teleportation, and lots of mystery and ambiguity (which I like) around the extent of powers of the gods (who are not completely invulnerable, and can be killed), was icing on the cake to the incredible worldbuilding.
There are numerous time-line jumps, as the long life of the gods warrants a lot of flashbacks, but there are always notations at the beginning of these jumps two help keep things straight for the reader. But be warned: be prepared for them, or one might find oneself confused.
The themes in this book are heavy, but extremely thought-provoking and well handled. Sexual assault, molestation, homophobia, transphobia, racism, suicide, infanticide, and mental health are all integral in the book, and while Pawlicki does not depict them graphically, she does not shy away from them either. At the heart of the love story between Karana and An Ning, is An Ning’s gender, how she sees herself, how others see her, and how she WANTS to be seen.
An Ning presents as a male for much of the book, though she identifies and refers to herself – and is referred to by the author – with female pronouns, while other characters refer to her with male pronouns. In the world of “Trials of Fire and Re-Birth”, homophobia and transphobia does exist, and adds inner turmoil for An Ning.
Because of that kind of bigotry, additional angst about her feelings towards Karana arises. But this is an extremely gender and sex-positive book, and the adroit and sensitive way in which Pawlicki deals with these issues is highly commendable.
There are some great action sequences in the book. Again, in terms of the author’s descriptions, it’s less about being explicit (as with the themes I alluded to above), but more about being emotive with these scenes. After reading these scenes, they feel reminiscent of classic Kung fu & martial arts movies, in terms of the ability to capture the immensity of the moment, though the choreography of the actual fight is not as detailed as those movies, if they were translated to book form.
My minor quibble with this incredible book is that some of the modern colloquialisms seemed a bit at odds with the type of tale written. Yet on a whole the prose was very good, sharp, clear, and at times, quite poetic, with some absolute gems of quotable lines sprinkled throughout the book.
This book definitely moved me, and the beautiful love story, great worldbuilding, engrossing themes, and tales within tales was just my jam.
A relatively short book that packs a huge wallop, easily five stars for “Trials of Fire and Re-Birth” by Edith Pawlicki. Loved this one!