Silk Fire by Zabé Ellor

The Blurb On The Back:

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.  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.

SILK FIRE by Alex Livingston was released in the United States on 5th July 2022 and in the United Kingdom on 7th July 2022.  Thanks to Rebellion Publishing for the review copy of this book.

You can order SILK FIRE by Zabé Ellor from Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

26-year-old Koreshiza Brightstar (known as Koré) is a courtesan and owner of the High Kiss, a high class brothel that runs out of The Surrender, a megabuilding that belongs to his aunt Lady Dzaroshardze Faraakshgé Dzaxashigé (known to all as Dzaro).  The Surrender stands on Victory Street in the War District of Jadzia, a vast mega city created by gods who have long since disappeared.  Jadzia is split into various districts that are bound together by the Treaty of Inversions, which was entered into after the War District engaged in a series of devastating wars and works to bind the War District leadership.

The War District is currently governed by Judge Rarafashi but she’s over 200 years old and her health is fast fading.  The Judgeship must pass to either Magistrate Vashathke Faraakshgé Dzaxashigé (Judge Rarafashi’s husband, Koré‘s father and Dzaro’s brother) or Magistrate Akizeké Shikishashir Dzaxashigé with the winner decided by whoever first secures 17 international endorsements from the Jadzia’s other Districts and 38 endorsements from the War District’s aristocratic class.  Currently Vashathke is way out in front and the favourite to succeed his wife, a surprise given that Jadzia is a matriarchal society where men are usually treated as second class citizens.

The thought of his father succeeding to the Judgeship is one that fills Koré with horror because he knows the ambition and evil that drives his father and the cruelties that he’s capable of.  Should his father succeed, then he would undoubtedly seek to undo the Treaty of Inversions and bring war to the city again.  Worse, once he becomes Judge, Vashathke would take Rarafashi’s vast store of essence.  

Essence is a magical life force that used to be created by dragons belonging to the gods and made freely available.  However, the gods disappeared and so too did their dragons and as a result, no one can create new essence and instead it must be tithed (transferred) from one person to another or reclaimed from the dead.  Those rich in essence are made stunningly attractive and have super human abilities distinctive red eyes while those without it are dull and grey and die early.  Essence can also be transferred involuntarily through sex, and Koré has grown rich in it from his aristocratic clients.

Determined to stop his father, Koré allies himself with Magistrate Akizeke’s campaign, even though she’s doubtful that a common whore could be of any real use to her.  An opportunity to help stop his father presents itself when emissaries from the Lost District (which has been unheard from in over 10,000 years) suddenly arrive in the War District.  Led by Ambassador Sadza and Envoy Tamadza of the Twelfth River, both Vashathke and Akizeké are keen to court them, but they have their own agenda, which they are keeping to themselves.  

As Koré tries to get close to them, a client of his called Jasho introduces him to 23-year-old Riapáná Źutruro (known as Ria).  Ria is an initiate of the Fire Weavers (a division of technological archaeologists who are part of the Engineering District) and is visiting the War District because she thinks she has detected an energy signature for the war god Dzegé in the lower levels of one of the District’s buildings.  If she can find him, then it will qualify her for the second bracer that will mark her as a full member of the Fire Weavers.

However, the building where Ria thinks Dzegé is located belongs to Jasho’s family and he thinks she’s really after ancient tech that belongs to his family and invites Koré to go with him so he can secure it.  There, in the bowels of the building, they discover an ancient temple and the last remnants of Dzegé who decides to put the remains of her power into Koré, transforming him into a dragon.

As the only being on Jadzia capable of creating the essence that everyone craves, he now finds himself with the power to influence the race to replace Judge Rarafashi but he needs allies and trust does not come easily to him.  Fortunately Ria seems genuinely interested in helping him and so too does Faziz, a handsome underworld boss who is working with Magistrate Akizeke but who has an agenda of his own.  

As Koré comes to terms with his new powers, he discovers that there are even bigger threats to the War District than his father and that if he’s not careful, there are those in Jadzia who would seek to chain and enslave him to control the essence he can create for themselves …

Zabé Ellor’s debut novel mixes fantasy and SF with LGBTQ+ characters and erotic romance to dull effect.  There are too many ideas for the storyline to be coherent or gripping and the self-pitying Koré swerves between seeing sex work as a salvation and as something done by broken people.  Twists are telegraphed far too early, the antagonists are caricatures and I simply didn’t get what Ria or Faziz see in Koré beyond the physical.  

I picked up this book because having read the back cover blurb, it should absolutely be my jam.  I am always up for a political fantasy with high stakes and plenty of intrigue and anything with LGBTQ+ characters and a matriarchal society will always get my attention.  The back cover blurb also intrigued me because it’s one of the few I’ve seen that highlights the fact that there’s a throuple in it and having not come across that kind of romance structure before, I was interested in seeing how it was handled.  (Note – I don’t read much romance fiction so if throuples are now more common in that genre, then apologies – I am not trying to say that it doesn’t happen in publishing, I just haven’t come across it in fantasy/SF before). 

The book is told in first person by Koré and starts promisingly enough with him attending the wedding of a client’s son because he wants to introduce himself to Magistrate Akizeké so that he can try and secure a role as a strategist in her campaign.  And then it quickly goes downhill because from the first chapter, Ellor is keen to highlight that Koré is a young man who is filled with self doubt and self-loathing.  

Koré wants to work for Magistrate Akizeké but he doesn’t think he’s good enough to and because he doesn’t believe in himself, he has an uphill job trying to convince others that he’s in a position to actually be of use.  At the same time, Ellor establishes that notwithstanding that Koré loathes his father, he also desperately wants his approval and had a passionate love affair with his father’s aide, Zega, for whom he still has deep feelings.  As such, he spends a lot of time trying to convince Zega (who is clearly getting an extraordinarily good deal from Magistrate Vashathke and is not immune to performing his own pointless acts of cruelty) to join him in backing Magistrate Akizeké.  If a reader can tell from the first meeting that this is simply never going to fly, it is deeply frustrating that Koré – who actually does know these people – doesn’t appear to get it.  This then sets the pattern for the rest of the book – Koré fails to understand that people have their own agendas, is surprised and hurt when he discovers that they do and they he is not part of their plan, and then rinses and repeats the whole experience again.

I don’t have an issue with an author using a conflicted and naive character as the main focus for their novel.  When it’s done well, it serves as an interesting coming-of-age style narrative and can show to what extent experience jades a character or whether they can overcome it and hold true to their core values.  It is not done well in this book.  Until the final few chapters there is zero sense of Koré learning from any of his mistakes (no matter how many times he tells the reader that he has to) and worse, the reader has to put up with his constant whinging about what a monster he is and how unlovable he is and how no one wants him.  I found it deeply irritating – especially when he keeps saying it to Ria as a reason for pushing her away.  

Koré‘s self-pity and attitude towards sex work is also conflicted.  On the one hand, he’s used it to successfully build up his own stores of essence and has a highly successful and lucrative business where he is in contact with the War District’s aristocracy and privy to secrets and information he wouldn’t otherwise have.  On the other hand, he clearly sees his workers as being broken as much as he is and seems to detest the work that he and they do.  It’s not that I have an issue with this inherent contradiction about sex work, it’s that Allor spends a lot of time having characters denigrate sex workers and what they do and at no point talks about how in some ways it can also be empowering for the people who do it.  There are a lot of sex scenes in the book and they’re fine for what they are – a bit repetitive and with a heavy focus on the anal but they are not badly done.

This brings me to the notion of essence.  I was about a quarter of the way into the book before I felt I really had a grip on what it was and why it is so important.  Ellor seems to be trying to show rather than tell but this is such a key component of life in Jadzia that it really merited a couple of paragraphs of exposition.  The impression I got was that people can control the transfer of essence to other people (although at no point is it explained how this is done) but sexual acts can lead to involuntary transfers, which is what sex workers like Koré rely on in order to build up their own stores.  A plot line in the book revolves around the fact that there is also apparently machinery that can reclaim essence from the dead (which is then used to create certain materials – again, it’s unclear why it can’t be put into a human body) and also to force the transfer of essence if someone refuses to do it voluntarily.  

Given that Koré becomes a dragon and therefore capable of creating essence, I kept waiting for something that explains how he does it and how it feels.  That never happens and it’s pretty poor given that this is so vital to the world he lives in.  In fact, given that a key part of this book is about Koré suddenly gaining powers I was expecting at least a couple of scenes where he tries them out to see what they are and how he can control them.  Nope.  Doesn’t happen.  Apparently it doesn’t occur to him.  Instead, he either knows automatically how to do things like transform into a dragon or he’s completely incapable of controlling them, e.g. when scales suddenly appear on his body.  

Allor is similarly inconsistent in showing how Koré wants to keep secret that he’s a dragon.  He keeps telling the reader how important it is that no one finds out – even when Judge Rarafashi announces that whoever finds the dragon will get the Judgeship – and yet doesn’t work too hard to keep his transformations under control or his personal space private.  There is one scene in the final quarter of the book where people literally just walk in on him in his winged form and not one of them reacts to the fact that he is the dragon everyone in War District is looking for.  Also, it really isn’t clear to me how anyone could capture and subdue Koré unless he actually wants them to.  One of the things that comes out in the description of essence is that it gives people superhuman abilities so I didn’t understand why any attempt to keep him chained wouldn’t just fail because in theory he could bust out of the chains whenever he wants.  When Koré does finally embrace the power that being the dragon gives him in the final battle with the main antagonist, it completely failed to resonate with me because none of it is earned and it all amounts to a magical, convenient plot point to get him to an undeserved victory.  

Although the back cover blurb champions the throuple aspect, it’s quite misleading because it doesn’t happen until the final quarter of the book.  In fact, Koré spends more time in a couple with Ria than in a throuple with Faziz.  I found this disappointing because Ria is such a badly written character – pure male wish fulfilment, a young woman (who makes a point of telling us several times that she’s only 23) who has problems with drugs and alcohol because she’s unsure of herself but has fallen virtually instantly in love with Koré because … Well that’s never really clear.  I could understand the physical attraction she has to him because Koré is at pains to explain how he looks hot but given how badly he treats her and keeps treating her (of course, for her own “benefit” because he is such a monster etc etc) she at no point displays the self respect needed to tell him to do one.  Ellor clearly wants readers to see Ria as a “cool girl” who is not like other women within Jadzia society because she doesn’t treat men badly and wants to succeed on her own terms.  This is then promptly undermined when her dad gives her the promotion she’s been hankering after for the entire book and then she gets his job.

Faziz is actually the more interesting character.  A self-made man who survived disease and poverty to set up an underworld that helps those dispossessed by the War District’s aristocracy, he moves between the upper echelons and the lowest depths and maintains his own agenda for the whole book.  He’s also probably the savviest of the characters, knowing when to play characters and accepting that he’s probably getting played in turn.  One of the few successful scenes in the book is when he demonstrates that he’s smart enough to turn the antagonist’s key weapon back against them.  Again though, I simply did not get what draws him to the whinging Koré who has none of his smarts and is played so easily.

This brings me to the antagonists.  Magistrate Vashathke is pretty one dimensional, petty, cruel and cunning.  I didn’t understand why Koré kept hoping for approval when it’s pretty clear that it will never come.  Due to poor pacing in the book, Koré‘s backstory that explains the relationship between him, his mother and his father comes quite late in the book (certainly past the point where it would have been useful) and I simply didn’t understand the purpose behind the plot his father has orchestrated, which seems to involve demonstrating that he can father children but then killing or disposing of mothers and girls.  Envoy Tamadza is similarly one dimensional as an antagonist and it wasn’t clear to me what the purpose was behind her machinations other than to have some cool scenes with zombies.  There’s a twist in the final quarter that was signalled heavily almost from the start and which is similarly let down by one-dimensional characterisation and a lack of explanation of the character’s end goals other than general evil.

There are a lot of ideas in this book and I think that Ellor would have benefitted from stripping some of them back.  For example, I don’t mind a book that mixes science fiction with fantasy but here the balance between the two is uneasy and unconvincing – this is a world where people have blasters and swords and it’s not clear why when one clearly has an advantage over the other.  It’s a world where people have vehicles that can fly but also carts drawn by raptors, again, not clear why.  

What really disappointed me though was the portrayal of a matriarchal society.  There was real scope here to show the differences between a female led society and a male led one but what we instead get is lazy gender-switched oppression that’s inconsistent in its own terms.  For example, men are treated as brood mates and second class citizens but some of them are allowed to rise to positions of power and are not subject to the accusations of being overly emotional or irrational that are generally handed out and it’s not clear why.  Equally, I didn’t understand why male prostitutes are expected to present in a feminine way in this world – in a patriarchy it’s to further humiliate them so I wondered if in this matriarchy it’s so they can appeal to women?  Just a couple of lines are all it would have taken to square this off.

Ultimately, I just felt that this book was a disappointment.  The ideas needed pruning, the pacing needed to be adjusted so that back story is woven through earlier and more consistently than it is and the melodramatic, woe-is-me nature of Koré‘s character needed to be dialled down.  There are some glimmers of interesting ideas at play here and better editing would have helped them come through but as it stands, Ellor simply doesn’t have the writing chops to back up the scale of his ambition for me, and I can’t say that I’d rush to read his next book.

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