“Justice without the possibility of mercy is simply vengeance”
What a debut novel. Kerstin Espinosa Rosero is a serious writing talent and after reading Burn Red Skies I’m not remotely surprised she made the finals of the prestigious Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off in 2021. Rosero’s writing has a distinctive style that’s all her own and she should be on everyone’s radar in the world of fantasy literature.
Burn Red Skies has all the crucial ingredients that go into making a great novel, but the standout feature is how the characters, setting and magic system are all intertwined. This world involves elemental magic, drawn from fire, water, ice and air and those elements also relate to the specific races and countries. The Fire Realm, ruled over by the odious King Morian, is seeking to expand and also keep its subjects … well, subjugated. Their magic is pretty much what you would expect but they have one additional advantage in their general, Valerya, who is a Summoner, capable of unleashing dragons against those who oppose them.
What makes this world interesting is those able to channel the elements also have weaknesses that come with their powers. For example, the Iceborne of Glasgérios are allergic to sunlight, meaning they live in a world of perpetual darkness:
“But the Glasgérians worshipped only one thing, and that was Shadow. The domeras. The Conqueror of Light. It sounded terrifying, but for a nation of people who burned in daylight, she could see why the domeras was their savior.”
This premise allows Rosero to explore some complex themes and although there’s plenty of action, this book certainly isn’t all hack and slash. There’s lots to think about in terms of how we treat people who are different from ourselves, and how we ‘other’ them to justify our actions. The reference to the historical beheading of Glasgérios’ statues when the city was finally conquered by the Fire Realm has strong echoes drawn from our own history. The theme of race and racial purity also runs throughout the novel, particularly intermingling between the different races, which is frowned upon, ostensibly as this affects their magic.
Frankly, the worldbuilding of this novel is amazing on every level, which enriches the reading experience. It has a depth and there’s a deeper backstory, often only hinted at in passing, which makes you eager to learn more as well. We have airships, the miracle of the sky city of Divisorya, the ambitious Fire Realm, the mysterious Ice Realm, the long-lived denizens of the Waterlands of Lancistierre and more besides. The novel is so stuffed with ideas and imagination I’d need another review to cover all of this properly. Oh, and there are dragons – let’s not forget them!
Into this vibrant world Rosero has given us a range of characters, all of whom are nuanced with their own particular strengths and weaknesses. I’m going to single out Dove as one of my favourites. Dove is mute and the ‘voiceless’ in this world are spurned by society, and even feared by the more superstitious, making her an outsider despite being Fireborne. Rosero uses great skill in writing Dove, who communicates in so many different ways throughout the novel, despite not having a voice.
The other character who really shines in a crowded field is Valerya. At first, I thought she would turn out to be the predictable antagonist, sweeping all before her with her armies and fire-breathing dragon. However, Rosero is a better writer than that, and Valerya’s character is slowly revealed to be far more complex and believable. The reality is King Morian is the real antagonist and in many ways Valerya is curbing the worst of his excesses as his general, which she recognises:
“Power means a constant battle of choosing the lesser evil. Imagine what worse your Sovereign would do if I weren’t around.”
My other favourites were the adventurers, Bard and Dancer. This pair provide a different dynamic to the story, allowing for moments of comic relief and action orientated entertainment, which helps balance out the more serious aspects of the novel. To write one memorable character takes skill, but that’s four I adore, and I’ve not even covered Gryff, Valk, Decker, Merc, Wolff, Artis, Tomá and more besides.
At this point it’s worth mentioning that this is a lot for one novel to carry. If this book has a weakness, it’s the sheer depth of the world and the interactions between this varied cast. There were moments when I was having trouble keeping up on the motivations and tactics of the specific realms and certain characters as the plot whizzed along. However, those individual character voices were so strong it was easy to go with the flow. The main thing is there was no point where I wasn’t enjoying the story, loving the world I was exploring and captivated by the characters.
Any review would also be incomplete without giving credit to Rosero’s distinctive writing. She has a very rich, visual style, full of descriptive prose. I could quote her all day but for the purposes of this review, I’ve picked a few of my favourites, including the quote at the beginning of this review.
“Revenge came at him like a thousand swords, each one a separate note of misery.”
“There was nothing glorious about crouching in the cold, surrounded by dead comrades. How quickly a sky that had once burned with a fiery intensity blended into spilled blood, into the smoke that colored it the shade of old bones.”
There is so much to enjoy in this book and what excites me most of all is the huge potential of this series. The sequel, Rise Red Kingdom, is one of my current reads of 2024 and is every bit as good. If you haven’t already picked up Burn Red Skies, I would urge you to do so.