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Book Review: Firelight by Kristen Callihan

Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor

When you read as much as I do, and read as much in certain genres as I do (specifically fantasy and romance, for me), everything seems to take on a “been there, done that” kind of feel.   Granted, some books do it much better than others, and I still love it when I find a really well-written, entertaining romance or paranormal.  But I sometimes feel like I’ve covered the genres so thoroughly that I’ll never again have that rush of newness and excitement I did when I first started reading them.

That’s why I was so happy when Firelight by Kristen Callihan proved me wrong.

The book description, courtesy of Kristen Callihan’s website:

Once the flames are ignited . . .
Miranda Ellis is a woman tormented. Plagued since birth by a strange and powerful gift, she has spent her entire life struggling to control her exceptional abilities. Yet one innocent but irreversible mistake has left her family’s fortune decimated and forced her to wed London’s most nefarious nobleman.

They will burn for eternity . . .
Lord Benjamin Archer is no ordinary man. Doomed to hide his disfigured face behind masks, Archer knows it’s selfish to take Miranda as his bride. Yet he can’t help being drawn to the flame-haired beauty whose touch sparks a passion he hasn’t felt in a lifetime. When Archer is accused of a series of gruesome murders, he gives in to the beastly nature he has fought so hard to hide from the world. But the curse that haunts him cannot be denied. Now, to save his soul, Miranda will enter a world of dark magic and darker intrigue. For only she can see the man hiding behind the mask.

About a year ago, I saw famed literary agent Donald Maass at the Write Stuff writers conference in Allentown, Pennsylvania, speaking about the future of fiction writing.  He spoke about how genres that were once separate and distinct were now starting to blend together more often in works of fiction, and that that trend would progress into the future.  For example, you might see a romantic horror story, or a dystopian paranormal, or a science fiction historical.  (For an obvious, and non-literary, example of such genre-blending, see the recent movie Cowboys & Aliens, which is a science fiction western.)

Firelight is a great example of this trend.  Part historical, part paranormal, part romance, part mystery, Callihan has blended familiar elements to create something that feels completely new and different.   The slow-burning sexual tension between Miranda and Archer sizzles, and the fantastic elements take the story in a different and unexpected direction.

After Archer saves a young Miranda from being assaulted by thugs, he cannot forget her.  Years later, he makes an offer to her impoverished father to “buy” Miranda’s hand in marriage.  Miranda finds herself trapped into marriage with a man who covers his entire body with clothing and masks (only his eyes are visible, and he covers the skin around them with kohl), and yet she finds herself drawn to him both physically and emotionally.

One of my frequent complaints about romance is that the characters—especially the heroines—are not well developed enough, the stories relying too much on stock characters and archetypes.  Not so in this case.  Miranda is one of my favorite recent heroines, strong and self-reliant, intelligent and stubborn.  Yet there’s also a profound vulnerability to her character.  She chooses to trust Archer when he tells her she’s not responsible for the murders, and she becomes determined to find out who is—and to find out the secrets Archer hides behind his masks. 

Archer is a great hero, strong and self-loathing.  He doesn’t think of himself as worthy of Miranda’s affection, yet he finds himself increasingly drawn to her the more time they spend together.  He hides the secret behind his disfigurement so deeply that we don’t discover what happened to him until late in the book, at the same time Miranda does—and that mystery definitely did not go to the place I was expecting.

And mystery, I’d say, is what propels this plot along.  Not only do we have the tantalizing mystery of how Archer became disfigured (and what, precisely, this disfigurement is) and the murder mystery, but there’s also the lingering mystery of if, and how, Miranda and Archer can be happy together.  I rooted for the couple right from the beginning, but Callihan sets up the bleakness of their situation so well that I didn’t know whether a happy ending were possible for these two—and I liked that sense of not knowing.  The happy ending in romance usually seems like a foregone conclusion, and it was nice to feel like I couldn’t take it for granted this time.

This is the first book in Callihan’s Darkest London series; the second, Moonglow (which features a different set of protagonists) will come out in July.