Review by Christopher G. Nuttall
Her Crown of Fire
Her Crown of Fire was recommended to me by someone who’d read Schooled in Magic and thought I might want to give Renee April’s debut novel a try. It does have something in common with the SIM books – being a combination of portal fantasy and wizarding school story – but beyond that the two universes are very different, including one plot twist I rather wish I’d devised myself. Our heroine is not alone when she falls into a whole new world.
Rose Evermore is a high school student trapped under the thumb of a domineering mother (her father’s identity is a mystery, which may be connected to the plot) and desperate for a way out, when she discovers she has a strange affinity with fire and her dreams start coming true. Before she can come to grips with what this means for her, she finds herself yanked into another world – Lotheria – with her best friend Tyson, who doesn’t have any magic at all. This makes him extremely vulnerable. The local authorities will kill him if they catch him. Rose goes to learn magic, while Tyson hides with the locals near the school.
It rapidly becomes clear they have been dragged into a political nightmare. The land is ruled by the sorcerers, there’s a war underway and threats of unease and revolt in the city, the laws are enforced harshly … and Rose, for reasons unknown to herself, is at the centre of the storm. She finds herself having to hide her connection to Tyson, while trying to learn magic and make friends and eventually becoming involved in a bid to overthrow the headmasters, all the while trying to find a way home.
Rose – the entire story is told from her point of view – is an engaging main character, trapped in a world she both loves and hates, torn between the desire to stay and the urgent need to return home (or at least get Tyson home). She is brave and determined and wins friends easily, although it is clear she has to work for every success. She is also close friends with Tyson – and, for those who care about such things, she is either bisexual or a lesbian, with at least one lesbian tryst between the pages.
It is a shame we don’t see more of Tyson’s point of view, because it is clear he’s a pretty engaging character too. He finds work as a blacksmith’s apprentice, then gets involved with networks of resistance and rebellion that run through the city streets. (One of the book’s downsides is that we only see the world through Rose’s eyes.) The other characters are not as fleshed out, too, as they might have been; there’s a great deal of room for expansion, in the sequels, as well as unanswered questions.
Despite that, the book has a gloomy oppressive atmosphere that only lifts – slightly – as we rocket towards the climax. This world is dark and repressive, the magicians barely any better off than the commoners they grind into the dirt; punishment is harsh, brutal, and leaves its victims scarred for life. Even powerful magicians are ground under by the system – students go into debt, forced to spend years of their lives serving the school, as payment for their education. The risk of disaster – of Tyson being caught, of their friendship being taken for forbidden love – is ever-present. All the risks of fascist regimes – brutal guards, betrayals from the ranks, etc – are up close and personal and our heroine is not spared. Unlike Harry Potter, where the Wizarding World is presented to us as an wonderland with a dark underbelly, the darkness of Lotheria is front and centre right from the start. It gives the book a sense of urgency that many others lack.
The world-building is pretty good, although quite a number of questions are left unanswered and it isn’t clear, at times, what is really going on. Who are the sorcerers fighting and why? What agreements have been made between them and the northern clans? There are aspects of the world that could have been expanded, allowing us to understand what is really at stake, and others that could have swallowed entire books on their own. This may be an aspect of Rose’s personality – she wants to go home, or at least to get her friend home, and takes less interest in the world around her. In some ways, this leaves the book feeling oddly condensed, as if an entire trilogy has been compressed into a single volume.
The book’s only major weakness, IMHO, is that we don’t see anything from Tyson’s POV. I cannot help feeling that was a missed opportunity of sorts, as it keeps us from seeing the townspeople at the same time as we are introduced to the magic students. There was room for two dedicated storylines, which could have been brought together at the climax of the novel; indeed, that is the idea I wish I’d had (although perhaps not for any current universe).
Overall, Her Crown of Fire is a pretty good – if short – read, and apparently there are more books coming soon.
You can find the author’s website, and samples, here.