Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig

36220335To the mad ones

I knew I was going to like this book right from the dedication.

For a Muse of Fire is the first book in a YA trilogy set in a high fantasy world inspired by Southeast Asia during French colonization. It’s the story of Jetta, a girl with bipolar disorder who is trying to get to a “magic” spring whose waters should be able to help her (because of the lithium which naturally occurs there).

It means a lot to me when I find SFF in which the main character is mentally ill. For two reasons: mental illness representation is only common in contemporary novels, but as I do not live in the US, they do not reflect my experience of living in a country in which there’s very little (or: even less) awareness on these topics. The other reasons is that I like seeing mentally ill people being heroes in all genres.

I loved the representation of Jetta’s bipolar disorder. It’s subtler than I thought it was going to be: Jetta’s lows are basically shown as a time jumps in the story. I think variety in representation of mental illness – books that do not show depressive episodes to avoid being too triggering and books that explicitly engage with the topics of depression or suicide – is really important, especially when it’s ownvoices like this book.
“Subtle”, of course, doesn’t mean the representation wasn’t there: Jetta’s “malheur” is relevant to the plot and to her characterization.

I really liked following Jetta and her family through Chakrana as they try to figure out how to live in a place where the tension between colonizers and the rebellion is rising. I especially liked reading about shadow plays and the way this aspect was tied to the magic system.
The magic system itself was really interesting and imaginative: in For a Muse of Fire, you’ll find necromancy in a way you’ve never seen it before.

Another thing that made this book stand out was the mixed media format: some of the chapters are told like plays, there’s sheet music, there are maps, letters and telegrams.

Until now, I talked about what made For a Muse of Fire stand out. However, it didn’t stand out as much as I hoped it would. While the themes are very different from the average YA fantasy, I found the plot very formulaic. There are people in power, there’s a rebellion, at the beginning of the novel the main character thinks the people in power are not that bad, but then she changes her minds and falls in love with a boy in the process.
Formulaic diverse stories are important – and the diversity here wasn’t just a dressing to make the story feel new without any actual depth to it, it isn’t tokenism – but sometimes I wonder whether I’ve read too much YA fantasy. I predicted every single twist from the beginning.

It didn’t help that the romance was very bland. There wasn’t anything wrong with Leo, the love interest, he was just so forgettable that I had to look up his name, and I finished this yesterday. He doesn’t stand out from a sea of very similar YA fantasy love interest.
The dancers at Le Perl – especially Cheeky, I want to know more about her – were far more interesting characters. This is also the only YA novel I know that has positive sex worker representation.

This book definitely could have been better in terms of predictability, but I didn’t think it was just average: it’s one of the books that executed this kind of plot better.
For a Muse of Fire is set in a colonized country, and the author shows the ways colonization affects a culture through the details – clothing, language, religion, even buildings – without any infodumps. I’m often disappointed by the worldbuilding in YA fantasy books, but I wasn’t here.

The writing was solid, but I can’t say it stood out. I love atmospheric books, and I would have loved if this had been one of them – I wanted to feel as if I was there with Jetta, but I couldn’t always visualize how things looked.
I always say that books longer than 500 pages are longer than they need to be and usually have pacing problems. Here, this was true only for the ending, in which I felt like too much and not enough was happening at the same time. Anyway, the pacing was very good for most of it – I finished this 512-page book in less than three days, which almost never happens. (Even if I’m pointing out some negatives in this review, I really liked this book, or I wouldn’t have read it so quickly.)

One more thing: some parts of this book hint Jetta is also into girls, and I definitely read her as bi/pan. I didn’t know whether to recommend For a Muse of Fire as a queer book, but the author mentioned Jetta is queer in a tweet, so it’s canon.

My rating: ★★★★