When I reviewed Snow Like Ashes, the first book in the SNOW LIKE ASHES series (back when I was a FanLit newcomer), I complained of a lack of depth to the world that Sara Raasch created. In some ways, its sequel Ice Like Fire (2015) gave me what I desired; I was pleased that the world of Primoria is explored and developed in this book. But where one issue was partly solved, others were thrown up. Once again I found a story with plenty of potential that, if looked at in any depth, felt incomplete.
Interestingly, Raasch starts her acknowledgements by saying that “sequels are hard”. She admits that this second book hurt and that she needed help along the way to produce a “coherent novel from my agony”. My first thought on reading this was — yes, that makes a lot of sense. Ice Like Fire reads like it was hard to write and I’m not sure that can ever be a good thing.
A recap of Snow Like Ashes, then, with a warning that there will be some spoilers for the ending:
At the end of Snow Like Ashes we left Meira and her fellow Winterian soldiers as they finally re-entered their home-land, the Kingdom of Winter, having freed the Winterian slaves from the evil grip of Spring. The tyrant of Spring, Angra, was sent packing (although did not necessary die). What’s more, we learnt that far from being a lowly peasant girl, Meira is actually the orphaned Queen of Winter and Mather, who always believed he was King, is just a normal boy.
The magic system is also worth a quick re-cap, not least because it gets more complicated in Ice Like Fire. The ruler of each kingdom (that is, the four “Season” kingdoms and four other mysteriously named “Rhythm” kingdoms), each possesses a magical conduit in the form of a small object. What most people don’t know is that when a conduit is broken in defence of its kingdom the conduit wielder becomes the conduit themselves and is imbued with powerful magic. This means Meira herself is the magical conduit of Winter.
At the start of Ice Like Fire we find Meria trying to help her people rebuild their ruined kingdom. She is severely hampered in this task by her tricky ally, Noam, the King of Cordell. Having helped Winter reclaim its homeland, Noam is now set on reaping Cordell’s reward by pillaging Winter’s jewel-encrusted mines. He is also searching for the legendary “magical chasm” — the source of all conduit magic in the world.
When the chasm is found early on in the story it has huge consequences for Winter, Cordell and the world. Or it would do if it wasn’t locked by a magical barrier. Feelings about this are mixed. Noam wants the chasm opened so he can use the powerful magic to rule the world. Meira is afraid of the chasm and gradually comes to the realization that she dislikes magic and wants the chasm to remain sealed. Theron, Noam’s son and Meira’s love interest, wants to save the world with a peace treaty and thinks the magic chasm can help with his philanthropic goal.
Theron takes a look at the pictures on the chasm wall and realises that they may well be symbols representing three particular kingdoms — Summer, Yakim and Ventralli. After much political wrangling Theron, Meira and some guards and advisors set off on a tour of these three kingdoms under the guise of introducing Meira to the world. Their real aim is to search for anything that might open the chasm, although Meria of course doesn’t actually want to do this (or at least, she isn’t sure). Meria’s secondary motivation is to secure allies for Winter without Theron knowing. Theron, meanwhile, takes his peace treaty without his father’s consent.
At this point, a hundred other layers are added to the story and quite frankly, I lost the plot, or the plot lost me, I can’t be sure who’s to blame. Either way I’m confident that there was too much going on.
Firstly there’s another form of magic going around — the “Decay” favoured by Angra (who may or may not be dead). History about the decay — what it is, why it is — isn’t really provided. If it was set out in the first book (which I now can’t remember) I could have done with some repetition here in Ice Like Fire.
Then there’s the fact that Meira’s magic is out of control; there’s the fact she can sometimes talk to her dead mother and sometimes she can’t; there’s her bitter internal wranglings about whether to be queen-like or whether to revert to her rebellious nature; there’s a number of flashbacks; there’s her issues with Theron who starts following her about and creepily touching her a lot; there’s her old love for Mather (more on him in a moment); there’s Ceridwen, the Summerian princess who may be an ally and who has some kind of link to the Ventrallan king; there’s a brutal slave trade to stop; there’s a secret Order to discover; there’s an odd librarian — there’s a lot.
Talking of Mather, he is still in Winter flouting both Cordellan authority and his father’s orders in order to secretly train a gang of ex-slave boys (and one girl). Mather’s chapters are written in the third person past tense while Meira’s are first person present. Taking my grumpy hat off for a moment I can see that perhaps this is an interesting stylistic device. Putting it back on again I can’t help but think that there might be a reason why this isn’t commonly done. The reason being, it’s quite annoying to read.
Here’s what I really thought of Ice Like Fire — starting with positives:
- I like Meria and that’s fundamentally important. As a result of liking Meira, I like the story. She is strong, conflicted, powerful, confused, unwavering in her desire to protect her kingdom. She’s great.
- I quite like Mather too. He vastly improves in this story, working his way from grumpy and hard-done by to passionate, strong and most importantly — naughty. I enjoyed his chapters and his gang of wayward Winterians (minus the appearance of the narrator who should have stayed at home).
- I liked seeing inside the other kingdoms. Summer is a crazed, killer clown of a kingdom — fun on the outside, murderous on the inside. Yakim is a place of science and learning and Ventralli is all about art and everyone wears masks. The descriptions of the costumes were wonderful, conjuring images of ancient Venice.
Turning to the negatives:
- I found the plot of Ice Like Fire too confusing. There are too many threads, too many enemies, the motivations are not clear enough.
- Meira and Theron find answers to the opening of the chasm ludicrously easily. Granted, Meira does query this herself. But I think it was a mistake to brush this off, even if it is dealt with in the next book. As such a central point of this book, the question should have been resolved to save it becoming an awkward plot device.
- The lesser characters are very undeveloped. I would have preferred a simpler plot and stronger characters. Besides Meira, Mather and the Summerian princess, Ceridwen, no one has a personality. I kept forgetting who Meria’s retinue were — the three male guards in particular may as well have been clones.
- It still bothers me that there’s no backstory to the Season kingdoms. Why does the weather change so dramatically at each border, and why do the people look completely different? Is it a magical thing? If so I want to know — what magic is it, where did it come from?
- Finally, why is the king of Summer called Simon while his sister is exotic Ceridwen? The names felt picked out of a hat.
One thing I cannot fault is Raasch’s ambition with this sequel. It is much more complicated than Snow Like Ashes but at several points I wished it wasn’t. Take the best of Ice Like Fire and the best of Snow Like Ashes — the stronger plot of the first novel combined with the heightened world-building of the second — and I think you’d have a great story.
If you are content to put your fine-tooth comb to one side, Ice Like Fire is an enjoyable, pacy read, and despite my grumbling I did enjoy it. I better get onto the final book, Frost Like Night, to see how Raasch ties up the many dangling threads of Meira’s story.