Flesh and Fire, the new Nebula Award-nominated title by Laura Anne Gilman, is out in hardcover from Pocket Books. This captivating story offers up a fresh and heady world where magic is accessed through the medium of wine, and where spells are incanted and decanted. Magicians are "vinearts", who study all their lives to understand the subtleties of the wines in their vineyards and the unique magic that can be summoned through them. Different kinds of wine carry unique magical properties, which the vinearts are responsible for creating.
The world of the Vin Lands are enticingly served up to us. Practitioners of the wine-based magic and the land’s temporal powers co-exist somewhat comfortably, and peace is more the rule than the exception. Life is good, especially if you’re a vineart or one of the princelings. There is a slave caste, a social device made all the more interesting because new vinearts are chosen from their ranks and not through the middle or upper classes. Life revolves around the grape and the vineyards are at the heart of the Vin Lands. Gilman’s simple, direct style draws you into the story, and makes you feel like putting your boots up on the table and pouring a nice glass of bourdeaux.
The book pours out the tale of a young vineart-to-be, Jerzy. This young lad takes the familiar path of a youngster learning about the world, learning about himself, and learning magic. Boy meets grape, boy learns how to zip off a handy fire spell, with a hint of oak and a light nutty aftertaste. In the Merlin/Obi Wan role is a gruff but not unkind chap named Malech. He’s a comfortably accomplished vineart with his own vineyards and country house, and a large staff of servants who putter around baking bread and teasing Jerzy and occasionally beating the slaves. Toujours a magical Provence. Should we care about the slavery aspect of this book, at this point? Barkeep! Another glass of that house white and be quick about it!
But hold the bottle! Danger, menace and schemes threaten the Vin Lands, disrupting the harvests, the political balance of power between the vinearts and the princelings, and more importantly, Jerzy’s education. Monsters ravage the vines, slosh up on the coastlines to consume villages, and pull down wine keg stuffed galleons into the briny depths. Because the peace of the land has depended on a very diffuse power structure, the reaction to all this mayhem is, well, a tipsy blend of consternation and denial. It is up to gruff Malech and his young protege Jerzy to get to the bottom of all these wine-threatening goings-on. Will they find out who is thrashing the peaceful vineyard towns and villages? Will Jerzy grow into an accomplished vineart before or after he decides he likes girls? Barkeep! A glass of that house red damn your eyes!
"Flesh and Fire" uses some standard plot devices that we’ve all seen before, but it is a genuinely engaging magical wine-tasting session of a tale. The real lure of the book is the magic/wine relationship, so lovingly and almost worshipfully given to us that we can taste it. The book is suffused with this heady version of magic, it is as ambient as the gritty technology of William Gibson. So when all is said and done, this is a thoroughly enjoyable read, and I can heartily recommend it – paired with a vintage Merlot.