Amy Good's 'Claiming the Coldflame': A book review by Jay Lonski

Claiming the Coldflame
by Amy Good
by Jay Lonski

From the publisher’s website: “Amy Good is a professional illustrator, and the founder of Little Potato Studios, a video game development company. She was born in Detroit Michigan, and still lives in the metro area with her husband and their two dogs.”

It doesn't take long for Claiming the Coldflame to betray its narrative influences. By page ten, an informed reader should have a good impression of the adventure that’s unfolding. Here is the plucky youth, eager to test the boundaries of her home. But the mountains surrounding the village are fraught with dangerous monsters! Is our heroine, only familiar with hunting the occasional rabbit, ready to embrace the destiny hinted at by her companions?

Though most modern fantasy epics owe at least some gratitude to the works of Tolkien, Claiming the Coldflame owes more to the Japanese role playing games of the nineties; it’s structure is closer to Final Fantasy than Lord of the Rings. Bleda, our divinely chosen protagonist, sets out from her home and as she does, the scale of the world expands by orders of magnitude. As her divine power grows, the enemies she encounters grow to match. The magic gets fancier.

This isn't the type of story where you wonder whether or not the titular Coldflame will be claimed; it’s concerned with the fulfillment of prophecy and the empowerment of youth – both thematic hallmarks of young adult fiction. The earnest approach runs the risk of coming across as humorless and heavy-handed, but it works here. In a literary landscape crowded with postmodern entries, there’s charm in a story that stays its narrative course.

Where the book dares to deviate is in its unique synthesis of religious influences, with a strong Gnostic flavor prevailing. Bolhex, primary antagonist, is a pretender god who has eclipsed memory of the true god, Jielle; Bleda, channeling this god’s son, has come to set right the natural order. This struggle is, more or less, the Gnostic conception of the cosmos: a harmonious order usurped by an imperfect being. It’s refreshing to see extrapolation from an esoteric source, even if the execution doesn't quite live up to its own grand designs.

Other potentially interesting deviations don’t impress. Bleda’s identities as a woman and nonhuman are unexplored, with only superficial mention made of them outside early chapters. As a girl from the Driakatana tribe, a race of marginalized lizard people, Bleda could have offered an engaging contrast to the male, ethnocentric narratives found in the genre. Instead, her heritage is dismissed as a tactical decision made by Jielle and her gender impacts little, other than appearance; tempting as it is to read that last point as mildly feminist, the gender-neutral approach renders her frustratingly silent in the face of questions about her heroic authenticity.

As disappointing as these unexplored thematic vistas are, they don’t detract much from the page to page experience of the book, which is full of sensory detail: the author’s experience as an illustrator is obvious in every flourish. Descriptions of artifacts and landscapes contain just enough detail to kick-start the imagination. Swords and daggers are almost tangible; as you read, you feel the heft of blades and the resistance they encounter as they cut through air and enemy. This kind of eye for material detail could be put to great use in a graphic novel or video game, where the plodding explanation of combat could be experienced instead of read.

Unfortunately, the same weapons that provide interest also fuel the book’s most glaring issue: frequent use of Deus ex machina. There are too many superweapons, and they have a bad habit of showing up immediately after the introduction of some supposedly invincible foe. The reader needs time to feel that an enemy poses an insurmountable challenge, but Coldflame can’t stop immediately offering up weapons tailor-made to deal with enemies. Just when the story starts to find balance between tribulation and triumph, in comes another magical sword to dispel the gravity of the situation.

Like the handling of the book’s powerful weapons, the treatment of character motivation is a mixed bag. Though branded as unimpeachably evil due to his relationship with a deity of death, the questions raised by the primary antagonist, Bolhex, are persuasive. Why does Bleda follow the God Jielle? What proof does she have of her advisor’s claims? Unfortunately, glimpses into Bolhex’s motivations both begin and end immediately before his death; other than secondhand information, the reader is not given the opportunity to know him beyond his villainous role.

And for the amount of soul searching she does over the course of the story, Bleda’s answer to Bolhex is dogmatic: she follows Jielle because “her will is to obey her.” The novel, despite its fascination with issues of choice, ends on a decisive victory for orthodoxy. Ultimately, Bleda isn’t much wiser than when she hunted rabbits. Her wasted opportunity is keenly felt in young adult fiction, where the purpose has long been to help readers grow during periods of adversity.

Ultimately, Claiming the Coldflame leans heavily on the usual selection of fantasy tropes. Those allergic to the usual offering of elves and dwarves probably won’t be able look past the book’s shortcomings; those willing to abide the imperfections, however, might be surprised to uncover a smattering of eccentric influences and a willingness on the part of the author to take cautious chances with a well-worn formula.

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