The Red Empress is the only home Erzelle has known since the day her family was lured aboard and murdered, victims of a grisly ritual meant to make the elite immortal. Erzelle plays her harp for the diners inside this ghoul-infested riverboat, knowing her own death looms, escaping through the music that’s all she has left of her parents.
Her nightmare’s upended in the space of a day by the arrival of Olyssa, a fellow musician, but so much more.
Erzelle is swept up in Olyssa’s quest to find her ensorcelled sister Lilla, a journey across a mutated landscape that leads them to an enemy responsible for the deaths of millions. To stop the slaughter of countless more, the pair has no choice but to draw on the deadly magics that reshaped the world … a power that’s as dangerous to its wielders as it is to its foes, one that’s killing Erzelle even as she fights to control it.
The Black Fire Concerto is author Mike Allen’s debut novel, though he’s previously published short fiction and poetry and has edited several anthologies including the successful Clockwork Phoenix series, which is currently up to its fourth instalment. The book began its life as a novelette and was extended to be a full novel, something which is reflected in its division in three parts. I had a bit of a mixed reaction to this book. While I enjoyed its protagonists, I was a little surprised by the fact that this was (to me) a zombie novel in disguise. I’d noticed the reference to the ghoul-infested riverboat in the blurb, but I hadn’t realised that ghoul equated zombie and that they would play such a large role in the book. As regular readers of my blog know I’m not a zombie fan, they genuinely freak me out, so I had some trouble with some of the descriptions in the book.
The Black Fire Concerto shone in its world-building. It’s a post-apocalyptic United States, which due to a calamity called The Storms has been altered to be almost unrecognisable. In this new reality magic seems to have returned to the world, along with an infestation of ghouls and the creation of new, changed peoples, plants, and wildlife. The magic in the book is interesting as there is an almost evil connotation to it, not just in the way the villains of the book use it, but even in the way it affects Olyssa and Erzelle. I also really liked how Olyssa and Erzelle accessed the magical force through music. The newly made species of the vulpines was well thought-out, they were my favourite part of the book—well, together with the magic flying horses. Allen really builds a believable culture for them and I really enjoyed the time we spent with them. I wasn’t a fan of the ghouls, as explained above, and the various necromantic machines constructed from body parts. They were creepy and some of the descriptions Allen gave of them are more horror than fantasy and I really didn’t like them, though that is obviously a quite personal thing. They were quite well-written and I could see people who like horror really appreciating them.
I liked the development of Olyssa’s character and the relationship with her sister, but I would have liked to learn more about Erzelle’s family. We learn relatively little about her background, just that her mother was a musician, her father an accountant and that they flew out of Minnepaul in a jet. Then again the lack of a background might be the point, seeing how young she was when she got stuck on the Red Empress. Her lack of knowledge leaves an opening to explain a lot of the world’s building blocks to both her and the reader, but at the same time makes her decisiveness and practicality a little unbelievable, especially at her age. Erzelle is twelve, at least she thinks she is, but she doesn’t come across as such at all. Olyssa, on the other hand, is very much developed. We learn her history, how she’s come to be on her quest – both through what she tells Erzelle and the memories she shares with her – and while at times she seemed a little over-secretive, we do learn a lot about her emotions, especially in the last part of the book. I found the dynamics of the relationship between the sisters quite powerful and Olyssa’s difficulty in coming to terms with what has become of her sister and dealing with the consequences felt quite genuine.
The Black Fire Concerto was a well-written book, though clearly more episodic in nature than a continuous narrative. The overarching storyline, that of Olyssa’s search for her sister and the need to stop the ghouls, is very much resolved by the end of it – and in a satisfying manner – while still leaving plenty of room for Allen to return to this world and these characters for further stories. While I liked the book and definitely saw its merits, in the end the ghoul action put me off quite a bit and made it hard to read at times. Allen shows himself a skilful writer and I’d love to read more of his work, but in a different setting. However, if you enjoy dark fantasy and zombie-esque monsters, The Black Fire Concerto will be right in your wheelhouse and this slim novel might prove an unexpected delight for you.
The book was provided for review by the author.