Life, when we sit back and look at it from a certain point of view, is all about pain, our reaction to it, and the transitions that help us overcome it. From this perspective, there are sacrifices every person must make in order to reach that place in existence where we can appreciate love, joy, security, and even sorrow and death. In many ways we are defined by the choices we make. And, at the end of the day, we must forgive ourselves for making the wrong ones, because if the final result is an inner peace and sense of community and togetherness, then those bad decisions had just as much to do with our accomplishments as the good ones.
Firefly Island, the breathtaking novel by Daniel Arenson, is all about decisions. It’s all about pain and torment and horror and, at the end of the day, love. It’s a dark fairy tale about the lengths we will go to in order to prove our devotion to our siblings, our friends, our communities, our fathers. And, finally, it’s about mistakes. Horrible, world-shattering mistakes whose ramifications reach far and wide, affecting even those on the periphery we wouldn’t expect.
The story takes place on an island split into five separate and (oftentimes) warring states. Each state is unique, in that the different populaces hold different abilities, or “magic”, as it’s called. The isolateded communities look down on interracial breeding. In some places, those that do are outcast because they create “impure” offspring, children who hold fragments of the abilities both their parents have. In each community there is born, once a century, a “Firechild” (dubbed so because of the belief that the fireflies inhabiting the island have imbued the people with these magics). These are beings whose powers are the penultimate of their individual races.
Aeolia, a sixteen-year-old slave girl, is one of these Firechildren. She has the ability to merge minds (and possibly even souls) with any person within close vicinity. Whatever she feels, they feel. If her body dies, theirs does, too. In the novel, she is sold into slavery by her callous father very early on, and grows up for the next ten years, until the bulk of the tale begins, never knowing freedom, until one day, in an intense and heartbreaking scene, she achieves it by doing the one thing she promised she would never do – breaking a vow to a person she loves more than anything.
Along her travels after achieving freedom, she meets others much like her. This is a fast-moving novel, and sometimes their interactions can feel rushed, but in the end it works because author Arenson understands that in a fantasy tale like this, it’s the scope of the adventure that matters and not the minutia that can bog a story down. He handles it beautifully – we understand that Aeolia will fall in love with a man she’s just met because she’s never known love, only pain and despair. We know that two other characters will become romantically entangled, though they’ve never met, because they’ve dreamed of each other and this is a work of fantasy. And in fantasy if a vision tells you something, you believe it. Hell, this happens in real life sometimes, as well.
As I said earlier, however, this is a novel about pain. It drips from virtually every page. The awfulness people do to each other is affecting and oftentimes purely evil. We see five different communities all battling amongst each other, all on the brink of civil war, and in certain cases look at the others as being lesser than themselves. If there’s a better allegory for the dangers of racism, xenophobia, and jingoism, I haven’t seen one.
As I said, there are a LOT of horrors acted out in this book, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t beauty, as well. As a character, Aeolia embodies what it means to be human. She is at the same time weak, strong, lost, cowardly, brave, indecisive, firm, forlorn, and lustful. She’s a living contradiction. The choices she makes (here we are talking about choices again) in the name of decency are often times not so decent, and it is this sort of dichotomy that makes a story interesting and real. And yet she is a gorgeous person. We can see this, and we want her to succeed. She’s not perfect – not even close – and yet neither are any of the other characters. In fact, one could look at even the villains of the piece and find, at some point in their development, a sense that you might want to root for them. This makes for great conflict, as well as tension. Not to mention it’s simply great writing.
What I also appreciated about this particular example of fiction is the way it plays with genre conventions. It is fantasy, of course, and yet it has more of a historical feel, even though there are monsters and magic. There are promises made between characters, clichéd promises you’ve seen a thousand times since the onset of that little ring-carrying person with hairy feet, and yet Arenson doesn’t always allow those promises to be fulfilled. There are so many twists and turns, so many characters, that you truly don’t know what to expect. And yet, when you finish and look back on it, you realize that the directions he took make perfect sense. Even the end, which I found to be a bit formulaic at first, I grew to appreciate and even love when I went back and read it again. There is so much darkness held within these pages, so many atrocities, that the characters deserved to finish up with a respite of sorts. The author has a message to tell, and it comes through loud and clear, and it wouldn’t have worked if the story had ended any other way. Again, that’s just great writing.
My only problem with the book isn’t really a problem, but a longing for more. I wanted to know the history of Firefly Island. I wanted to know the legacy of the Firechildren throughout history. If they come about every hundred years, are the outcomes always the same? Have the Stonesons (those who control minerals) always hated the Esirens (psychic types like Aeolia)? Was there once a single monarchy that split, weakening the masses by isolating individual talents? Again, these are questions that could be answered in another book, or not at all if Arenson so chooses, because this particular novel works without these things being explained. So why did I mention it? Probably because it’s not in my nature to go through an entire review without being at least a little critical.
To wrap it all up, I LOVED THIS BOOK. I’m not usually one for fantasy, but I couldn’t stop reading it. It’s really that good.
Check it out. You won’t be disappointed.
Firefly Island in the Kindle Store
Plot - 9
Characters - 9
Voice - 10
Execution - 10
Personal Enjoyment - 10
Overall - 48/50 (4.8/5)