More Like Trash Fire: Silk Fire by Zabé Ellor

Posted 3rd March 2022 by Sia in Fantasy Reviews, Queer Lit, Reviews / 0 Comments

Silk Fire by Zabé Ellor
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Science Fantasy
Representation: Bisexual MC, F/M/M, queernorm world, secondary trans character
Published on: 5th July 2022
ISBN: 1781089760
Goodreads
one-star

Set in a planet-sized matriarchal city where magic and technology freely bleed together, a male courtesan’s quest for vengeance against his aristocrat father draws him into an ancient struggle between dragons, necromancers, and his home district’s violent history.

Koré wants to destroy a man.

Koré knew that meddling in politics could end badly, particularly when trying to sabotage his aristocratic father’s campaign before it destroys the city he has come to love. And when a chance encounter with a dying god imbues him with magic-breathing powers, it gets worse: he suddenly becomes a commodity – and a political player.

But the corruption in his city runs deeper than just one man, and an ally's betrayal unleashes an army of the dead on his home street. Koré must trust the world with his deepest secret to stand beside the woman and man he's finally let himself love, as only the bright truth of dragon's fire can break the iron fist of a necromancer's hold.

I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

I started a book blog because it felt like I was the only one who liked the books I liked, but that couldn’t be true, and I wanted other readers with my ridiculously-niche tastes to have somewhere they could look to for recs. I review books because I want to hype the hell out of under-the-radar gems and uniquely weird queer SFF and authors that I think everyone ought to be reading. I review books because I wanted and needed somewhere to talk about all my book!Feels that didn’t take up anyone else’s space.

I don’t like writing negative reviews. I hate it. It gives me so much anxiety. I would much rather quietly put a book away and never talk about it than publicly say I hated it. I have literally spent weeks agonising over this review, writing and rewriting it, trying to hit the balance between being honest and being cruel, being genuine and writing from a more detached, formal place of mind. I don’t know what the right note is, here, so I’m just going to do my best.

Overview

Silk Fire is an objectively bad book. Objectively. Not because I didn’t like it, but because it is seriously, genuinely, bad. It’s an absolutely stunning premise, but dear gods, this was not ready for publication. I honestly can’t believe it’s being published as-is. It reads like a Nanonovel – the book you write just to get it all down on paper; the book you then have to rewrite half a dozen times before it’s anywhere close to done. Except this didn’t get all the rewriting it needed.

Someone should have sent Silk Fire back to the drawing board. Someone should have said ‘go write this again.’ If it had been me, I would have said ‘put it down, set it aside, and come back to it in five years. Write other stories, other books, practice-practice-practice, get better, because this deserves to be as amazing as it clearly is in your head, and right now you’re not experienced enough to pull it off.’

I sympathise. If I had a book idea this cool, I’m sure it would be an immense struggle to hold back and wait before sharing it with the world. I know how exhausting it is to rewrite the same book over and over. Part of me doesn’t blame Ellor for not wanting to wait, for not wanting to go through the endless cycle of rewriting and editing and rewriting again.

The rest of me does, though. Because I’m heartbroken that this isn’t the book it could have been; because I’m angry that anyone would have an idea this good and not do it justice. There’s the skeleton of something really, truly amazing here! But it’s lost in the utterly terrible execution. I can see what Ellor was trying to do, trying to make, but honestly? He’s not a good enough writer to pull it off, and he’s not good enough to see that he didn’t pull it off, which is…a whole ‘nother level of not-good.

The Worldbuilding

Koré’s world is a matriarchal, planet-sized city, divided up into territories that each have their own government. (One of these territories has been cut off from the rest by some kind of shield/boundary for the last 10,000 years.) Dinosaurs pull hovercraft-vehicles like horses would draw carriages in another setting. There used to be gods, but the gods are dead. Everyone has essence, a kind of lifeforce-energy that can be given involuntarily during sex, or willingly ceded to another person. The more essence you have, the prettier, stronger, and healthier you are, and the redder your eyes become.

Let’s start with the matriarchy, which was one of the (many) aspects of Silk Fire that I was most excited about. I was excited to see what Ellor would do with it – I’ve seen plenty of fictional matriarchies, but I never get tired of them. …Except this one: this one I was tired of after two chapters. Because Ellor didn’t bother to put any thought into it at all; Silk Fire just takes our world’s patriarchy – at its most obnoxious and gross, at that – and just switches men and women around. Men are now the ones considered too emotional to be trusted with complex thinking, the ones who should be home raising the children, the ones who can be spouses or sex-objects and nothing else, the ones who are weak. Women are now aggressive, patronising, abusive, and quick to grope any pretty young thing they fancy.

“It’s not that rare. We even have a male magistrate now. Vashathke of Victory Street.”

“You sound like you hate him.” She laughed. “Men! Put two in a locked room and they’ll scratch each other bloody. Women were built to talk, plan, and work together.”

There’s no nuance, and there’s no common sense – a world where women have power and men don’t would suck just as much as one in which men have power and women don’t, but those two worlds should suck in different ways. As an off-the-cuff example: most men are physically stronger than most women, so in a matriarchy, why not present a culture that de-values tasks that require physical strength? Why not have a world that values child-raising more than it does anything to do with the military, with violence and aggression? In the Crown of Stars series by Kate Elliott, women are supposed to care for hearth and home – and that is translated as them being the heads of the families, the ones who control property, the ones with all the power while men get sent out to fight battles sometimes. That’s a thoughtful, interesting take on a matriarchy, and it’s far from the only one. But just turning women into our world’s worst stereotypes of men? It’s boring, and it’s lazy, and it’s been done. You’re neither saying nor accomplishing anything new.

(You can read quite a good conversation about worldbuilding for matriarchies/non-patriarchies here.)

There’s also the fact that, despite this deeply, deeply misandrist culture, the main character’s father is in the running to be the next sort-of-president. This is neither properly explained (how did he manage it?) nor ever presented as a win for the subjugated men. It’s only relevant because Koré is devoted to keeping it from happening.

(And in this heavy-handed matriarchal culture…two men, Koré and his dad, end up in positions of major power. Like, even in fiction, even in a fictional matriarchy, men still come out on top. It feels like a slap in the face. Can you just not? Are women allowed to win ever? Go away.)

Moving on: literally nothing – nothing – is ever visually described. I had no idea what anything looked like. Clothes? Buildings? Food? The hovercrafts and the dinosaurs? No clue. Nor is any of it ever really explained – it’s not cohesive, it doesn’t fit together. It reads like Ellor was afraid of info-dumping the reader, and so went too far the other way and didn’t tell us anything. Every now and then someone will make a reference to some long-dead god or a person we’ve never heard of before, but because we don’t get any real worldbuilding, no context, none of it means anything. I have no problem whatsoever with an author throwing everything they love AND the kitchen sink too into the mix – but none of it does mix. It’s oil and water and so many gaping worldbuilding-holes. For crying out loud, we literally know nothing about the district Koré lives in except the one street he lives on. And even that, we have no idea how to picture!

And all of this – this world, this culture, this form of governance – has supposedly gone on uninterrupted and unchanged for ten thousand years. That – no. That just doesn’t work. Ten thousand years is longer than the stretch of time between now and back when humans invented agriculture. And you want me to believe in a world that’s gone that long without changing at all? That’s going further than any amount of suspending disbelief can take me.

(It is mentioned that people with a lot of essence can live to be about 200, but that’s not enough to account for ten thousand years of stagnation. Let’s pretend everyone in Silk Fire lives to be 200 – which they absolutely do not, that kind of lifespan is only for the 1%. But let’s pretend.

10,000 divided by 200 is fifty generations. Fifty generations in our world takes you back to the Fall of Rome; do our languages and beliefs and practices look anything like they did back then? No, because of course they don’t. Fifty generations produces a tonne of cultural change. Silk Fire‘s handwaved lack of history is lazy and makes no sense.)

Plus, the closed-off territory I mentioned? Near the start of the book, the walls come down and they’re able to rejoin the rest of the world…with virtually no fanfare and no difficulty whatsoever. And this is only relevant at all because Koré immediately starts plotting ways to get their votes so they don’t vote for his dad. It’s not this big miraculous, world-changing event, the way it really ought to be.

The Cast

Koré’s defining characteristic is that he thinks he’s a monster. I have no idea why, but he says it at least once every few pages. Over and over and over again, with no explanation, and no evidence to back it up. It goes far past the point of just being annoying, but it seems to be his only real personality trait. He’s certainly not the political mastermind he’s presented as, nor nearly as calculating; when he’s given a literally world-changing gift from a dead god, he just…ignores it. He doesn’t start working out a way to utilise this gift to leverage the votes he wants out of the right people; he doesn’t even try to figure out what’s happening to him or what he can do now. Even when he starts manifesting scales – when he starts manifesting WINGS – he just…keeps ignoring it. Vaguely hoping it will go away.

Corrosive anger festered inside me. It doesn’t matter. I won’t let the scales appear again. I pushed the truth—I don’t know how to stop them—into the pit of my stomach. I had work to do.

…Please explain to me how someone ignores the fact that they’re turning into a dragon? Or why this wouldn’t be a major driving force of the character and the story, rather than something incidental, which is how it’s presented? Never mind that the mc is turning into a dragon, there are – things. To do. Somewhere. Probably.

The love interests had some appeal, but I never felt any chemistry between the three, and didn’t buy into the ship at all. All three – and all the rest of the cast, for that matter – are mostly defined by one or two personality traits, rather than feeling like fully fleshed-out characters. There’s a tiny bit of character growth, especially for the female love interest, but as a polyamorous person who was super hyped to be getting poly epic fantasy? This was a major let-down.

The Plot

The plot is basically, Koré’s dad is up for election, and Koré is going to do everything in his power to make sure his dad doesn’t win. Except acknowledge, explore, or leverage the fact that he, Koré, is turning into a dragon. Because that’s not relevant or important.

I think Silk Fire might have worked better if it had been split into two books – that might have given the plot room to breathe. As it is, it moves at a break-neck pace, and that would be fine, except that the book also tries to have all these deeply emotional moments – personal revelations, attacks on Koré’s brothel, confrontations with the bad guys – and doesn’t give either the characters or the reader a chance to take in and process those moments. Which makes those moments fall very, very flat, and leeches away impact from any other aspect of the plot, because how can we be invested if we’re not emotionally engaged? And how can we be emotionally engaged when you’re rushing us past every moment of emotion?

Slowing down the pace would have helped enormously, not just in giving the book more room to work our emotions, but also allowing more space for worldbuilding and historical and cultural context to be woven in. And hopefully it would make the plot easier to follow, because honestly? It’s so hard – damn near impossible – to keep track of what’s going on. It’s too fast and there’s too many 180s and reveals and drunken twists. I hate plots that are just, a-b-c, so obvious and predictable that there’s no point in reading the book at all – but Silk Fire goes way too far in the other direction.

And, I mentioned this in the section on Worldbuilding – but it’s hard for me to buy into the whole Precious Boy thing. A man winning power in a matriarchy doesn’t read well – at least here, in the hands of this author – given that…men are always winning power in the real world as well. So it doesn’t really feel different or unique. If anything, I ended up resenting the whole set-up – men win even in a matriarchy! Yay! Not. (And it’s complicated, because it’s a bad matriarchy that should be challenged and changed if not outright overthrown – and yet. It still feels like girls don’t get to win even in a world where they rule.)

The Prose

This is not a book with lyrical prose. It is a book with prose that tries to be lyrical. Occasional sentences are lovely, but they’re often poorly placed – jarring the flow of a paragraph, or turning a piece of dialogue into something that sounds insincere and cringeworthy – and the rest of the time, you get similes that don’t quite work.

Blood pounded in my ears, foolish and heavy as a down comforter.

…blood that’s like a blanket?

A big part of the problem is the same as with the plot: pacing. The writing runs so fast that lines that could be lyrical crash into each other, aren’t given the space they need to shine. If the pacing were slowed down, we’d get that space, and prose that would be something very close to beautiful.

Dialogue

“So many people have treated me vilely. My very bones grow suspicious when others draw close.”

Silk Fire‘s dialogue frustrated me no end. It switches from heavily poetic, almost purple-prose-y, to blunt in a way that isn’t clearly code-switching. Much worse was the way conversations jumped around – more than once I wondered if my ARC was missing paragraphs, because the speakers went from talking about one topic to a completely different one with no transition. Despite the book being written in first-person, I couldn’t keep track of how the MC was thinking, why his thoughts and speech – and everyone else’s – zig-zagged the way they did.

Zega flushed rosé-wine pink. “What are you doing here?”

I couldn’t remember. “Let Opal go. Now.” I jabbed the sparking, electric shiki end of the weapon toward him.

He rolled his eyes at my threat. “You’re making skyscrapers from street shit. Opal brought this on himself. He’s no good in bed. He cried when I struck him with the shiki. You would have begged for its kiss.”

“You would have made me beg. You taught me love meant suffering for you.” Acid boiled in my throat. “You killed love for me.”

“As my marriage tore my heart to tatters. You left me alone with my wife. It’s all your fault. At least, when I fuck like this, I feel free of her.”

“So freedom means someone else suffers? This is wrong.”

It just doesn’t sound like real people talking. It reads like a script, a bad one – it rings false, like when you hear a song played out of tune.

(Also: skyscrapers from street shit doesn’t quite work as an idiom, imo. Mountains out of mole hills works because mole hills look like tiny mountains – scale one up, and voila, a mountain(-shaped thing)! You…can’t scale up street shit into a skyscraper. The alliteration is nice, but the imagery doesn’t work.)

Believable, naturally-flowing dialogue can be really difficult in an epic fantasy setting, or any setting that is vastly different from our world; you may have to teach the reader how people in this setting speak, and get them used to it. Epic fantasy dialogue often doesn’t sound very similar to how I talk with my friends, or with my co-workers, or any other kind of conversation I’m used to. That means an adjustment. But Silk Fire doesn’t read as if the people in it have a coherent conversational style; one minute super formal or highly poetic, the next very casual, and often with the same person. It would make sense to be super formal with people higher up the social food-chain with you, and casual with your own circle, but Silk Fire‘s not that structured. It’s random, jumping from one to the other and back again, which makes it teeth-grindingly uncomfortable to read. Gah!

Sex Scenes

The sex scenes are a bad joke. For a book whose premise was allegedly ‘what if Sanderson wrote Kushiel’s Dart?’ (which: why would anyone want that), the sex reads closer to EL James. (Not as bad as James. But a lot closer to James than either Brandon Sanderson or Jacqueline Carey!)

You cannot have your MC refer to his arse, mid-sex scene (or preferably ever), as ‘my lower opening’ and expect me not to cringe. Nor can you write anal sex without lube! Okay, the man who did the penetrating is called a dick for not using lube. Thank you for acknowledging that it’s not fun for the person being penetrated (the MC). But that’s not really enough. Even if you’re not the one being penetrated, anal without lube (OR PREP) is not fun! Chafing is a thing! A deeply unpleasant thing! For both parties!

The only scenario I can come up with where someone might go for anal without lube-and-prep is rape, at which point it’s not about sex, it’s about power, so presumably the chafing is an acceptable trade-off for the rapist. But it wasn’t a rape scene. Which makes it wholly unbelievable, and really bad, and just – come on.

Don’t write a book about sex-work if you can’t write about sex like an adult.

In Conclusion

I’ve been looking forward to this book for years, ever since the publication deal was announced – but Silk Fire doesn’t live up to any of its promises, and that is heartbreaking. It tries to be too much and do too much, and thus can’t sustain itself.

It could have been – almost was – amazing. Instead, it’s my biggest reading-disappointment in years, and I don’t recommend it for anyone.

one-star

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