STARRED REVIEW
April 17, 2018

Let the games begin

By Cass Morris
Review by

In an alternate version of ancient Rome, mages blessed by the gods wield elemental magic, shaping the land and the people within it. For years, the dictator Ocella ruled Aven with fear, working to strip the society of all the trappings of the Republic, and killing entire families of Senators and bureaucrats who displeased him. After her sister’s husband is put to death, noblewoman Latona was forced into service of the dictator as mage and (presumably) as mistress. With his death, she and her sisters are free once more.

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In an alternate version of ancient Rome, mages blessed by the gods wield elemental magic, shaping the land and the people within it. For years, the dictator Ocella ruled Aven with fear, working to strip the society of all the trappings of the Republic, and killing entire families of Senators and bureaucrats who displeased him. After her sister’s husband is put to death, noblewoman Latona was forced into service of the dictator as mage and (presumably) as mistress. With his death, she and her sisters are free once more.

But keeping her powers suppressed for so long has come at a price: Latona now struggles to keep control over her growing powers as she relaxes the suppression over her gift. Simultaneously, the death of the dictator has left a power vacuum within the political arena. Among the men who would seek to gain power and guide Aven to greater glory is Sempronius Tarren. His political machinations bring him together with Latona, setting them both on a path that is as dangerous as it is unclear.

From Unseen Fire is brilliantly imagined and plotted. Its world is rich, with no detail left unattended to. Cass Morris has generated Tolkien-level tomes of information about the world of Aven to make the world come alive. And come alive it does. The city and the world we explore teem with life, and not just of the alternate-Roman variety. The different cultures that intersect in Aven have different motivations, different gods and different ways of practicing magic. This level of within-world work gives From Unseen Fire a verisimilitude that can be missing from similar books.

And the level of work Morris put into this book isn’t just seen through world building. Every character (with perhaps the exception of Latona’s unfortunate husband) seems like they could be the lead of a story all their own, happening just offscreen. Readers don’t always know where they are going but always have the sense that, while characters may walk out of the frame, their movements are not unaccounted for. Morris knows where they are and what they are doing at all times, in the sort of instinctive way you know where your hand is even in the dark. This mastery of character development prevents Morris’ plot-heavy book from overpowering its characters.

With so much plot and so many characters, Morris has to take the beginning of the book slowly—any faster, and readers would lose the thread and not be able to tell one character from another. The beginning is definition-heavy, dragging the reader through exposition rather than letting us discover things for ourselves through the actions and words of Morris’s brilliantly developed characters. And the slow pacing does begin to wear on the reader in one major way. Latona is obviously the heroine, but it is not immediately clear that Sempronius is a main character, flawed or otherwise. His chapters come too far and few between in the early chapters to make much of an impact, and it is not immediately clear that we as readers should trust him any more than we trust his political opponents. That unpredictability does, however, become part of Sempronius’s charm as he grows into his role as leading man.

But while the beginning of From Unseen Fire may drag slightly, once things get going, they fly. The book rockets along at breakneck speed through the machinations of the Senate, and the public (and personal) struggles of Latona and Sempronius. Any wait at the beginning is well worth it as the pieces fall into place as the book progresses. Readers who are patient enough to let Cass Morris build the world around them will be rewarded handsomely with an amazing ride.

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From Unseen Fire

From Unseen Fire

By Cass Morris
DAW
ISBN 9780756412241

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