BURN RED SKIES by Kerstin Espinosa Rosero (SPFBO 7 Finalist Review)
And so we come to the first of the Fantasy-Hive’s SPFBO 7 finalist reviews. Burn Red Skies may not have made it into our top 3 of the remaining finalists. But the judges found plenty to like within its turbulent pages.
Kerstin Espinosa Rosero
It makes the winds stop.
It makes the stars go dark.
It awakens an ancient beast.
And with it, a new reign of blood.
It is the Summoning.
And at the heart of it is fire.
When the Summoner’s army blazes through her village, Dove is forced into hiding. Torn from everything she knows, she begins training in the elements with only one goal in mind: to find her brother. She just needs to get past the Summoner’s army—but how can she slay a dragon that is already dead?
I like the cover design, simple images and a three shade colour scheme. There is something about the trailing serifs coming off the title font that captures the twisting threads of the plot, lots of ends waiting to be tied off together. The prose is well crafted with lots of nice lines and images and dialogue that feels natural and true to the characters. It’s a relatively short book compared to some Fantasy epic chonkers but it packs a lot of story, character and characters into its 426 pages (6811 Kindle locations). I found it an immersive and enjoyable read starting and finishing it within four days.
I quite like the cover. While I find it a bit stark and difficult to look at, I do think it’s eye-catching and interesting. Overall I found it to be an intriguing book with several aspects that kept me reading, but there was also a lot that I struggled with.
This cover is perfect on all fronts. The Spine, the back, and the cover are well designed. The red dragon and what looks like flames around an almost black starry sky, frame and pierce the title through the font in places. It has the perfect book size, and the font size inside isn’t too small. Each chapter is adorned with a symbol, and there is a dragon depicted around the dedication.
The writing in this novel was well-rounded. I didn’t pick up on any spelling errors and enjoyed the prose. It reads swiftly and very engaging.
Calvin: The cover design is definitely eye-catching with this one, and what’s more, I think it does a good job of telegraphing the overall feel and ambiance of the novel you’re about to read. The production values overall were high with few if any typos or other errors.
Thoughts on… THE CHARACTERS
This for me was the great strength in what was overall a great book. It is hard to pick out a favourite as there are so many compelling characters driving me to keep turning the pages to find out what happened to them.
Valerya the general and summoner is the kind of shades of grey villain that really appeals to me, both as reader and writer. She has the power to summon a dragon, she serves a king she despises but must obey, she is hard and ruthless but capable of mercy, and she is drained and injured by the demands of commanding a dragon. In some ways she reminds me of Darth Vader, that same menace of an evil emperor’s right hand, yet with a complex back story and a glimmer of hope for redemption.
Then there is Dove – the voiceless (mute) girl who for a while amuses the king and then is cast aside as cruelly as Henry VIII cast off Anne Boleyn sent to an execution that Dove somehow survives. To have a protagonist who doesn’t speak is something of a rarity – I can think only of Peter Newman’s eponymous hero in the The Vagrant, though Dove’s companions understand her condition and her expressions and body language turn out to be surprisingly articulate. She also reminds me of Philip Pullman’s Lyra Belaqua, with her fondness for climbing and her feisty rebelliousness and the fact that you just know there is something special about her.
The various minor and major characters that orbit this central pair all have their distinctive qualities and personas but another pair that I have to say I really enjoyed were Bard and Dancer. Bard the older slightly world weary soldier, and Dancer the psychopathic young woman wreaking murder and havoc where her victims least expect it. It’s a kind of Bonnie and Clyde pairing, although it also reminds me of Mercedes M Yardley’s protagonists in Apocalyptic Montessa and Nuclear Lulu and even a touch of Villanelle in the TV show Killing Eve. There is that sense of chaotic mayhem, of whimsical killing and yet a vulnerability that still has you fear for them.
Unlike the others, I did not find the characters to be a strength of this book. While all brought different (and needed) aspects to the story, there were a couple I felt lacked agency and that really let their sides down and had me dreading their chapters.
Dove was one that I felt had the plot happen to her, rather than being an active participant in it. While some of this is a consequence of the things happening around her, and understandable based on her past and where she’s at now, as the story progresses I would have liked her to have a greater ability to make choices about what happens to her, instead of continually being moved around as a pawn. This was particularly disappointing in context of a twist later on in the book. I hope that she’s given the opportunity to come into her own in the rest of the series, because she is otherwise a very interesting character.
Bard and Dancer were my favourites, they were a lot of fun and were great counterpoints to each other. I think I would have enjoyed the book a lot more if they were the primary focus the whole way through. I also liked the airship crew, although more so in the beginning than towards the end.
One huge strength of the book was the individual voices of the various POVs. At no point was I confused who was telling the story (although sometimes the why was very unclear). The distinctiveness of each POV made it a breeze to keep track as we moved around the various groups, which is especially important given how many different sides there are to the central conflict.
Burn Red Skies offers a diverse cast of well fleshed out characters with different, complex backstories and motivations. So, we meet Dove, who was separated from her brother and who finds a way into the rebellious resistance against a tyrant king. She is a mute character, portrayed very well in this novel, and discovers/learns to enhance hidden strengths to aid in the rebellion among a group that accepts and embraces her as is.
Valeria is the General of the Fire Realm and is conflicted in her leading role to serve the king. She has the rare ability to summon the long-lost spirits of the dragons and overall is one to fear for her ruthless actions. This makes her perhaps one of the less likable characters or just the opposite, however which way you see it.
There were so many enjoyable other ones to even out the scale all around. Decker, the grounded airship trader who opens the story with his plight. Bard and Dancer, who meet and are the sheer opposite of one another. Bard, the veteran with his ties to the rise of the king and Dancer, a whirlwind of a character to clash any predictability…and so many more.
Although told in changing POVs, it isn’t difficult to follow along, and it creates a great reach in setting and pace of the storyline.
I think that many readers will find a lot to like amongst the characters of this book. I think that, maybe more than anything else, Rosero does an wonderful job with character voice. I never really wondered whose head I was in, who was telling the story, as it were. This is something I appreciate in novels and I think it’s a strength here. At the same time, like Belle, I felt that some of the characters really lacked agency. That’s incredible frustrating for me and a bit of a pet peeve. All characters react to things, but at some point protagonists need to begin protagging, if we can make-up a word.
A good example in this novel is Dove. While she may have been the most interesting character, and her personality and pluckiness really appealed to me, she also has very little agency. Part of this is because she is voiceless, mute, and so does not communicate through speech. But I was struck by how little she communicates otherwise. There are very few instances where she even writes something down. She seems content to allow other people to infer her thoughts, even when their inferences are entirely incorrect. It was baffling.
Having said that, I do think other characters exhibit agency and there are some fun interactions between characters. There’s also an interesting and meaty story that takes place.
Thoughts on… PLOT/STRUCTURE/PACING
This is a very immersive read, low on exposition with the reader swept along the story like white water rafting, rather than experience the gentle pace of a River Rhine cruise with tour guide voice over. In short, it’s a bit confusing – but I like that. There were lines ending an encounter where the characters seemed to be saying exactly what was in my head for example
“What the Hell was that?” Merc demanded.
But, like I said, I really prefer the immersive approach to the death by exposition you sometimes get. Just glancing back through the pages to draft up my comments I find myself enjoying and understanding much more of what I’m reading and I think this is a book that merits a second reading to really appreciate the plot building and foreshadowing.
At its heart the plot appears a simple one, a mad tyrannical ruler seeks to intimidate his own country and expand it into an empire with acts of outrageous cruelty and crimes against humanity (sounds kind of relevant in 2022). But the devil is in the detail of the people, their pasts and how they may combine their efforts with or against him. That is where the story’s delicious complexity comes from.
Like Theo, I found many parts to be very confusing but unlike Theo, I did not enjoy it. A book needs to have some mystery to keep the reader engaged and reading, but there were so many aspects that went unexplained, or the characters were aware of the meaning/context but the reader was kept in the dark, that it really dampened my enjoyment. Sometimes it wasn’t as much of an issue – like when the purge is repeatedly mentioned but never really explained – but other times, such as when everyone marches to fight a war that hasn’t been declared (and in some cases for reasons that are never explained), it is a little more of a problem.
That said, the pacing was well handled, and while there are probably some areas that could have been tightened, I didn’t feel bogged down in the story, and quite enjoyed the author’s voice shining through. The quality of the prose is a definite selling point for me.
The story reads swiftly and engaging. With many characters involved who tell their stories independently from one another and don’t know each other due to locations, it weaves its way towards a central point as the story moves along. This isn’t well apparent at first, which is what I liked about it and it created a complex structure. Many details of settings and plight add texture to the novel, keeping it interesting and gripping.
The pacing here is really good, and as others have mentioned, the story is deceptively simple. With amazing relevance for 2022, a king terrorizes his own people to rebuild a lost empire. Amazingly relevant. You would think this is ground that might lend itself to tropes and the like, but the details keep things unique and interesting. I also appreciated the lack of exposition. However, like Belle, I sometimes found things a little too unexplained. A quick sentence or two could have helped make things more clear. At times it felt like maybe I was reading the second book in a series and had inadvertently skipped book one. There were only a couple times when I really felt this way, however, and I was able mostly to infer what I needed to. On the other hand, the blocking of certain scenes seemed underdone to me. Sometimes a character was not where I expected, or was jumping off a wall when I hadn’t realized they were on a wall, that sort of thing. More than being confusing, it jarred me out of the story and sent me reading portions a second or third time to see if I had missed something.
Thoughts on… WORLDBUILDING
This is an exotic world of strange magic, the fireborn who can conjure flames and cannot be harmed by fire. The iceborn capable of flinging out shards of ice and yet condemned to live in darkness or behind special filters because sunlight burns them. The stormborn who can draw down lightning on a large or very small scale (anybody need a defibrillator?), and waterborn who have powers of healing. Rosero does not have simple pseudo-medieval cities, one floats in the sky attended by the skyships of its traders, others lurk within mountains or gather around a citadel, streets threaded through those parts of the surrounding forest that can be cut down by an axe. With the magic system, the summoned dragons, the strange places this all felt very novel and intriguing. Unlike most fantasy novels, Rosero has dispensed with the customary map. That wouldn’t usually bother me as I find maps more a curiosity than a reading aid, but here I did feel a need for more of a spatial awareness of where named places were located.
I loved the magic system in this book. It was fun and well thought out, and the addition of storm was a nice point of difference to most elemental magic systems. The dragons were a great touch, and I assume there will be more time spent on them and what they can do in future books. The variety of locations was also very neat, and I liked how the cities worked with the environments around them. As Theo mentioned, it was sometimes difficult to keep track of where places were in relation to each other, but I’m not great at visualisation so it was less of an issue for me.
I love the idea of the rift with the burned stars and the awakening of an ancient beast. As an overall setting, what happens beneath those stars is an abundance of abilities in the characters and the importance of elemental magics of fire, ice, water, and storm that combine and affect everything in a variety of settings. Skies filled with airships, mountains filled with dwellers, and creatures roaming the forests, it offers an immersive fantastical world plus it has dragons! Hello.
The tug between good and evil and the ability of some characters to foreshadow events invite to an intriguing premise. Including different belief systems, animal messenger systems, and mages that shift skins, it is interesting and maxed out for the page count.
I thought it was well done if not in part a little too much of the good stuff.
Man, the magic in this one was really fascinating. I’m a sucker for good magic systems and I thoroughly enjoyed this one. From elemental magic to dragons to some amazing locations and a variety of different religious systems, there is a great deal to enjoy in the world building here. It’s also fair to say that I would have liked a little more explanation of some of these elements here and there. I agree with Theo’s point about a map. The world is so rich, and there are so many locales visited and kingdoms mentioned that having a map would have been a benefit to this one.
Quotations that resonated with you
The writing is a great strength of the book with lots of lovely lines of snarky dialogue, atmospheric imagery and pithy observations.
He looked like a fresh recruit, and freckled, like the sun shat on his face.
When a character Gryff is describe his struggle to master his ice magic to Valerya
“They come and go,” said Gryff. “Mostly frost, bits of ice here and there…”
The General cut him off. “I have no use for snowmen, boy.”
And on the fog of war (again so relevant in 2022).
Valerya killed their hero. Everyone knew that. It was one of the rare truths believed by both sides.
Rosero has a wonderful way with words, and I found myself appreciating many phrases used. Many of my faves were found in Bard’s chapters, but the whole book is full of gems.
It was a strange thing, the feel of a man freshly severed from the waking world.
Dancer suppressed a smile. “I do have people looking for me, and seekers are coming after us,” she said with the air of a lord’s daughter trying to decide which gown to buy. Finally, she shrugged. “But I’ve got a new dagger to try out, and it would be boring to get caught alone.”
“Does that look like a blood-stained whore to you?” he slurred, pointing to the tree behind him. But instead of Dancer, he saw Robian tied to its trunk, clearly unconscious.
Unbelievable, Bard found himself musing, enamoured. He almost forgot that he was surrounded by Hounds who had just exposed his lies.
This novel reminds me of the best in YA prose from well known writers. Nothing felt stifling or repetitive. The expressive language used in this novel (including dialogue) was crisp with the right amount of purple. For example:
“How quickly a sky that had once burned with a fiery intensity blended into spilled blood, into the smoke that colored it the shade of old bones. “
“Stone bowed to the river that flowed through it, giving it the impression that it was on fire, dancing in turquoise-green flames. Beautiful formations from the ceiling and ground met in the middle, and light filtered down in dusty columns.”
I really enjoyed Burn Red Skies. It packed a lot of story into relatively few pages with lean, enigmatic and efficient prose, much like its antagonist Valyera the summoner general. While I would say its compelling characters were the book’s key strength, the prose, world building and magic system all supported those character’s stories admirably. Others may have preferred a plot that kept the reader slightly less in the dark than the characters, I found the element of reader confusion to be a positive feature rather than a negative bug.
There is a lot to like about this book – there are fun characters, the magic system is complex and interesting, and the prose is immersive and easy to read. But it’s not quite enough to make up for the areas that I struggled with. I do wish I had enjoyed it more overall, and Rosero is definitely an author I will be keeping an eye on for future books.
This novel was a breath of fresh air, so different and whole with an interesting world, magic system and good intrigue. It features a character with a disability and an interesting history. My overall reading experience went well and I enjoyed it, though there is a lot going on in the story. Alas it didn’t exude a lasting linger on me after reading and I can’t put my finger on why that is.
There is a ton to like here–a deep and immersive magic system foremost among them. That alone predisposes me to like this one. While I did struggle with the lack of agency characters–particularly Dove–display, there’s still a great deal to like in this one. If you’re a reader who loves deep magic and immersive world building in a not-too-long format, this is one for you.
And the All Important Scores
|Rounded to the nearest half mark for Mark||7|
* As you can see, Burn Red Skies proved to be something of a marmite book, not simply dividing the judges opinions so much as scattering them to the extremes. However, in some consolation to the author, Burn Red Skies does get a “Hive Judge’s Favourite award” from Theo with a score of 9.5.