In an ideal world, I would have read the first book, The Banished Craft, before plunging into this epic fantasy. However, I’ve fallen behind my reading schedule and wanted to ensure this review appeared within touching distance of the book’s publication date, so jumped to this one after reading just a couple of pages of the first book.
The Fettered Flame is a genre-bending fantasy novel that continues the saga of two dying worlds, plagued by their own unique struggles for power. Follow the journeys of Cor – a woman striving to understand her powers of magic and how the connect to her past, Atesh – her contemplative dragon companion, and Jwala – a dragon plunged into a rebirth of ancient ideals.
I really enjoyed the intriguing world Bell has set up. Two worlds have been accidentally sundered by one of Mother’s children while she was observing them. One is peopled by humans and the other by talking dragons who adorn themselves with jewellery and scarves, each believing the other a myth. Both societies are intolerant and prejudiced – the human society refuses women any agency other than staying at home and raising children, while the dragon society is ruled by the paranoid and aging Zee. As the two worlds become increasingly shaken by earthquakes and natural disasters, their societies are also churned up and Cor, a female scholar with an outlawed tattoo on her midriff teams up with Atesh, a dragon who manages to travel through a portal between the worlds.
The dynamic is fascinating, as Bell’s nuanced worldbuilding produces an engrossing book, which could so easily have turned into a foot-to-the-floor, non-stop action adventure. There’s nothing wrong with such books, of course, but I loved the fact this tale raises interesting questions along the way about the nature of power, who has it and why. I particularly enjoyed the dragon world where might is right and the terrifying General Dronna keeps Zee’s subjects suitably cowed – except for a breakaway sect who believe there has to be more to dragonkind and that love and forgiveness are what they should be striving for. Human leadership is also undergoing some almighty shocks as the President’s loving and supportive spouse of many years turns out to be… different. I enjoyed Bell’s inclusion of homosexual relationships and how they are treated on both worlds – a refreshing change in a genre where such differences are generally not addressed.
The main protagonists are all engaging and brave – and struggling to communicate with Mother, who is urging them to find the way to recombine their worlds and prevent their imminent destruction. Cor and Atesh, the two protagonists at the heart of the story, make a strong pairing, though there are often misunderstandings and tensions as well as odd moments of humour as each tries to understand the other. I liked the fact they very much missed their own partners and yearned for normality and safety.
However, the character I increasingly enjoyed is Mother, the omniscient being who observes these worlds and provides a running commentary throughout. Initially, I found these musings intrusive but grew to enjoy her guilty efforts to put right this dreadful accident. All in all, The Fettered Flame is a thoroughly satisfying read that didn’t grip me from the start, but continued to draw me in with the intelligent characterisation and interesting worldbuilding that has me looking forward to the next book in the series – and a promise to myself that as soon as I can fit it in, I’ll be tracking down the first book, The Banished Craft.