Medium: ebook (290 pages in print)
Overview (No Spoilers):
According to its Amazon page, This Cursed Flame is a YA contemporary fantasy novel, first published at the end of April 2019. It is Book 1 in the This Curse series and this author’s debut novel. In researching the series, I discovered that Eckert is not only a writer, but also a neuroscientist. I even stumbled upon a previous post of hers discussing the Do’s and Don’ts of portraying science and the folks who study it in your books that had me reminiscing about ‘unobtanium’ in Avatar, the DIY particle collider in Iron Man 2, and the science behind The Martian. Considering her background and stance on scientific accuracy in literature, I was interested to see if and how this story incorporated scientific elements within its world of fantasy. And so, given Eckert’s day job as a scientist, I’ve chosen to style this in a way that resembles a peer review for a scientific publication – I just hope it doesn’t evoke similar outbursts of ‘Oh my goodness! Did Reviewer 1 even read this!? It’s all explained right there!’
Competition: Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off
Manuscript ID: SPFBO6-2020-000266
Title: This Cursed Flame
Author: Selina J. Eckert
Thank you for your submission to the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off, organized by Mark Lawrence. It has been examined by an experienced bookworm who has concluded that the novel is of interest to the readership of the fantasy genre; however, after careful consideration, this blog is unable to advance this manuscript beyond Phase One of the competition. Following a brief summary, please see the accompanying reviewer’s report for details regarding spoiler-filled questions and comments specific to this work.
Best Wishes, Warmest Regards,
J. Miller, PhD
Bookish Boffin, Critiquing Chemist
This Cursed Flame introduces the reader to events taking place in the Djinn Realm and the human one (more specifically, Philadelphia). The djinn – where one is classified as either djinn, jenari, or genie based on their magical ancestry – are a people whose talents tend to lie in one of four areas: manipulation of air, water, fire, or electricity. Interestingly, there are inherent differences in how one is able to call upon their magic, the results of which amplify either light or shadow (among other side effects); this disparity has led to unrest in the past. The resulting imbalance of power, the treatment of marginalized groups, and the discussions surrounding these topics interspersed throughout the book feel relevant to what’s going on in our own world.
Eckert alternates the third person limited point of view between a pair of teenage female characters: Janan, a genie, and Laurelin, a human. Setting the story up this way effectively allowed for cliffhangers to be sprinkled in every so often. These two main characters are distinctly different, where one is more closed off as a result of past trauma, while the other is primarily driven by emotions evoked by real and perceived slights. As much as I wanted to, I had a difficult time connecting with these characters and the choices they made for the first quarter of the book or so. Accompanying these two on their journey to safety and self-discovery are Ghadir (a no-nonsense djinn with a penchant for water-based magic) and Safiyya (my favorite djinn, who also happens to be stuck in the form of an ocelot).
The generally fast-moving plot has these four traveling across many diverse environments and facing a number of unforeseen obstacles and foes; the ensuing fight scenes, however, felt more like sitting on the sidelines and watching your favorite sports team take a beating, since the predispositions of our two storytellers left them more or less benched. And in case you were wondering, yes, there are mentions of chemistry and laboratories and experiments to be found on this adventure! I appreciated how characters’ backstories were teased, leaving me with many questions, before slowly answering them in unique, interesting ways in later chapters. As with any good manuscript, This Cursed Flame is an original story that offers plenty of avenues to explore in the upcoming sequel.
Additional Insight (Spoilers Abound!):
- Why do Ghuls get two superpowers, both shapeshifting and electricity-based magic? Why do genies have the ability to call upon all four elements while djinn (who make genies) only master one? Are there any other special gifts besides farsight? How was Ahriman able to hold folks in place with a ‘great invisible force’? Did he have another special gem (like the black one that amplified his voice) to do it for him?
- If binding to the bottle was supposed to hide Safiyya and Janan from Ahriman, how was Ghadir supposed to find it? Yes, Ghadir had farsight, but Ahriman had a unique tie to Janan, so I could envision them both being denied access to the bottle’s (and thus, Janan’s) location. What were the specifics of Safiyya’s protection spell?
- Laurelin irked me, even before you could say her actions were shaped by the will-o’-the-wisp’s influence on her. Is she a realistic teenage character? Yes. But I still struggled with how Laurelin was more inclined to miss the bigger picture, instead focusing on how she was denied what she wanted. For example, after relinquishing the Guardian amulet to Safiyya to negate the life-draining effects of Janan’s Candrani magic during training, Laurelin viewed the request as such: ‘Every time the djinn did something nice for [her], they snatched it all away just as unexpectedly.’ She also had a tendency to assert that she’d been kidnapped after finding herself transported to the Djinn Realm. This inspired the following response where, after being asked to carry a pack on their hike to the Sanctuaries so that Ghadir would be able to fight at a moment’s notice, Laurelin’s inner monologue read: ‘How dare she trap her here and then expect her to work for her?’ I have sympathy for her inability to immediately return home to the human realm, but I recognize that this predicament had been more a matter of safety…
- How did no one catch that Laurelin was infected with one of the wisps? Since Safiyya was able to get Laurelin to open up about the voices, why didn’t that immediately trigger a connection to the will-o’-the-wisps that they had dealt with in the swamp, especially since Laurelin had gone beyond the safety of the trail? It also felt like Laurelin’s eventual release from the voices was a little too easy, considering none of the djinn had actually figured out what was going on…
- Once they’d finished the video telling the world that Ahriman had turned Janan into a genie, why did they have to wait until they reached Fuego to share it? We already know that Safiyya was able to watch feeds while in the Sanctuaries, so couldn’t they have just uploaded it to the djinn internet there? Was it a timing issue, not wanting to show their hand before attacking Ahriman?
- A large part of the plot revolves around Ahriman wanting to silence Janan (most likely in a permanent sense), because ‘she could undermine his leadership, prove to everyone he was a power-hungry fraud. He had created her, a genie, the very thing he claimed to despise. Impurity.’ So, here’s my question: beyond the video, was there anything <magical> to support that she’d been turned into a genie by him? I highly doubt his followers would’ve disavowed him over what someone said (and from a genie, an ‘impurity’) without proof. And I’m pretty sure Ahriman had no problem lying…
- Since ‘the heart of a genie’s power comes from the power the creator holds, including the element and the well’, I thought it might be possible that, upon Ahriman’s death, Janan would return to being human as opposed to the ‘mutually-assured destruction’. Side note: since her magic is drawn from Ahriman’s well, could he feel her practicing at the Sanctuaries?
- ‘I’m not sure [Ahriman] will be content controlling only the djinn Realm. Next thing we know, he’ll be after the humans or the Shadows. Maybe even the Seas.’ Are the Shadows and the Seas different realms? What resides in the Shadows and the Seas? Is this related to the ‘Soul Shadows’ phrase the djinn say when they curse? Tell me more about ‘the pocket realm of Deiari’. How many realms are there? How do they exist relative to one another spatially/temporally/etc? How do the portals work? What are the rules for transporting from one place to another?
- Apparently, by definition, the word ‘cobalt’ can also be shorthand for cobalt blue, the color, as opposed to cobalt, the chemical element.
- ENERGISM – I need a book on this subject, stat.
- When Laurelin is conducting experiments in the Sanctuary of the Ghul, what kind of personal protective equipment is she using? How would it be different from what I’m used to since she’s dabbling in magic? Is the Guardian amulet enough to prevent harm while conducting her experiments, at least until its charge is drained?
- The initial experiments that Laurelin read about in the Sanctuary of the Ghul studied the impact of different ratios of the djinn magic types on the properties of the magically-infused crystal gems; yet, when Laurelin had Safiyya and Janan add their magic to a crystal for invisibility, there was no way of knowing the amounts added… So, was it luck that it worked as intended? Could it be that there is only one possible product formed by mixing two magical types and then the limiting reagent decides how much of it there is, with some excess of the extra magical type left in the gem in the end? Is there a way to merge the magic from different djinn types without requiring a gem to store the mixture?
- I want to know more about Nemis’s experiments: ‘He was trying to understand how the particles worked and interacted, hoping to unlock the secrets of wielding magic from both wells.’ I’m sure Janan would rather dip into the ‘normal’ djinn route of magic that emphasizes light instead of a darkness that steals life forces, although I bet there are others who would gladly harness the effects of the Candrani method if given the chance. Honestly, I think they just need to develop an amulet that supplies a life force instead…
Final Thoughts: Although this story was inspired by I Dream of Jeannie, Janan is not the sort of genie who grants wishes, or even has control over her magic… yet.
Cuneiform: having the shape of a wedge
Dust Devils: a small whirlwind containing sand or dust
Eutrophic: characterized by the state resulting from eutrophication, which is the process by which a body of water becomes enriched in dissolved nutrients (such as phosphates) that stimulate the growth of aquatic plant life usually resulting in the depletion of dissolved oxygen
Miasma: a vaporous exhalation formerly believed to cause disease