fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews Tamora Pierce The Circle Opens: Cold FireCold Fire by Tamora Pierce

The Circle Opens quartet deals with the ongoing adventures of the four Winding Circle students as they themselves become the teachers to new (and even younger) apprentices. Sadly, one of the prerequisites of this teaching experience is that the four friends are separated, as became clear in Magic Steps, in which we learn from Sandry that Briar, Tris and Daja have left on far-flung journeys with their respective teachers in order to improve their own magical crafts. As such, the wonderful friendship that was the heart and soul of the previous quartet (Circle of Magic) is put on hiatus as the four make new friends, become teachers and deepen the relationship between themselves and their mentors.

Daja (still sporting the copper-cover hand that she earned in Daja’s Book (Circle Of Magic)) and her teacher Frostpine — both metal-mages, whose talents lie in fire, metal-working, and the forge — are wintering in the snow-locked Narmorn. Both southern creatures, Frostpine in particular is finding the weather troublesome, but Daja is keeping herself busy with her work and her friendship with the two twin daughters of the household she is staying in. Nia and Jory Bancanor are total opposites in personality and temperament, but when Daja notices that they both have dormant magic in them, tradition dictates that it’s her responsibility to train the two girls until she can find more appropriate mages to hone their individual talents.

Meanwhile, the fire-dangers that come from living in a city that is built almost entirely of wood becomes clear after Daja makes the acquaintance of Ben Ladradun, a fireman who is training members of his community in the techniques of fighting fires. Daja is instantly impressed with the man’s bravery — because he isn’t a mage he is in considerable more danger when he enters a burning building than one who can magically shield themselves from fire. Striking up a friendship, Daja is soon working on a pair of magical fire-proof gloves for him.

Between training the twins and working on her new project, Daja is kept extremely busy, and Pierce fills her story with plenty of moments of joy, hard work, companionship, frustration and challenges. Because the twins are so different, Daja must find separate techniques of training them that suits each individual personality, and — in a nice touch — the twins reciprocate the time and energy Daja puts into their training by teaching her how to ice-skate. Despite the absence of Sandry, Briar, Tris and the other teachers, it is heart-warming to see how much they weigh on Daja’s mind, as she often thinks about them or alludes to them in conversation, displaying just how much she loves her foster-family and desires their presence.

In their absence, Tamora Pierce builds up a strong portrayal of a community, complete with the martial bliss of the twins’ parents and the friendship they share with Frostpine, the busy workplaces of the hospital and carpenter’s workshop that the twins are apprenticed to, and a general atmosphere of falling snow and sleigh-rides contrasted with the warmth and clutter of home. Naturally, Pierce doesn’t ignore the ugly side that exists in every community: the snobbery of certain mages, the fear with which some people regard Daja and the domineering figure of Ben’s mother, Morrachane. Instantly butting heads with the strict old woman, Daja pities Ben for the authority that Morrachane has over him — although Pierce mixes in a shade of grey in establishing the very real affection that Morrachane holds for Nia and Jory.

But even more troublesome than Morrachane is the growing evidence that there is an arsonist on the loose in the city. With house fires popping up everywhere, growing more dangerous and difficult to control, Daja and Frostpine find themselves volunteer fire-fighters in the attempt to control the blaze. Unfortunately, it is in this sub-plot that Pierce missteps. The arsonist’s identity is revealed too quickly, and made known to the reader (through several paragraphs told from the culprit’s point of view) long before Daja herself figures it out. This not only destroys the possibility of a whodunit aspect to the story, with a sense of mystery and suspense as to the arsonist’s identity, but makes the reader frustrated that Daja is so slow on the uptake. Any decision to tell the reader something rather than let them figure it out themselves is surely never a good thing.

However, despite this problematic handling of the story, there is enough here for Cold Fire to recommend itself. The bond between Daja and Frostpine is as touching as ever, as is Pierce’s ongoing theme of fulfillment being found in hard work and honest dealings with fellow human beings. Though not my favourite of the Winding Circle foursome, Daja is a cool-headed and determined young heroine, and probably goes through the most dramatic changes than all of her foster-siblings in her own “spin-off” adventure, having to deal with the pain of needless death, the crush of disillusionment, and the sting of betrayal.

The Circle Opens  — (2000-2003) Young adult. Publisher: Lady Sandrilene fa Toren is a noble girl whose thread magic wove together the power — and the personal bonds — of four young magicians. Now, Lady Sandrilene is on her own and saddled with teaching magic to a restless boy, safeguarding her uncle’s health, and tracking down a brutal murderer.

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  • Rebecca Fisher

    REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.