Review and Q&A: Heidi Heilig’s FOR A MUSE OF FIRE

Review and Q&A: Heidi Heilig’s FOR A MUSE OF FIRE

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*Guest review written by Gina Chen

Many stories valorize war as a final battleground, where the fate of the world is decided and the hero defeats the villain, for a better future to come. But FOR A MUSE OF FIRE by Heidi Heilig gives voice to the colonized struggling after their liberation from a tyrant, in a world steeped in complicated history and uneasy loyalties. No choice is easy for its main character Jetta, nor the people and country she loves, and the result is a fantastically rich fantasy with some of the most compelling, emotionally hard-hitting stakes out there.

“Maman hates the old ways.”

“It isn’t the old ways she hates, Jetta.”

“It’s Le Trépas.”

In Aquitan-occupied Chakrana, inspired by French Indochina, the Aquitans might have been heroes when they defeated the necromancy-wielding tyrant Le Trépas, but they have since placed the country under a new yoke of exploitation—turning rice paddies into Aquitan-owned plantations, conscripting boys as expendable soldiers, and violently snuffing out traditions they consider uncivilized. Rebel movements are rising in Chakrana, but their leader the Tiger is known for barbaric tactics and most Chakrans fear the rebels more than they despise their colonizers.

And isn’t it strange how the Aquitans devour our stories but silence our prayers?

Like most of the characters we meet, Jetta and her family have no desire to be a part of the struggle over their country. They can do little to affect the powers that be; they can only hope to stay out of their way, performing shadow plays in their water buffalo-drawn roulotte as they seek passage to Aquitan, where Jetta can find a cure for her illness that brings her to emotional extremes. Jetta’s one-woman talent with the puppets is their ticket there, but the secret to her skill is double-edged: she can see the souls of the dead and bind them to her puppets—a magic forbidden by the Aquitans and feared for its association to the former tyrant. As unrest spreads, they are forced into the crossfire, and Jetta’s abilities become their greatest danger and their only chance of survival.

But all we can do is carry on. Toward the walls of the capital, the fort and Nokhor Khat, the docks at the edge of our country. Toward the certainty that what lies ahead cannot be worse than what we’ve left behind.

The stakes are high from the outset and they only get higher. The story’s greatest triumph is making me care deeply about every character that passes through its pages and painting even minor characters with a vivid brush. From Jetta to Jetta’s family to the mixed-race smuggler Leo to members of the Aquitan army, we learn how they became who they are and how they justify their actions in order to survive. I’m compelled to trust them, I absolutely fell in love with most of them, and I desperately want them to be happy… making it all the more affecting when I’m blindsided by them. War makes people do and hide shocking things, and the story doesn’t shy away from this reality. Their problems can’t be solved by cleverness or just-have-enough-courage; characters are forced to decide between everything that matters to them or no one survives.

One of the soldiers sneers down at me as though he knows I’m mad—but I have never felt more sane. It is the rest of the world that doesn’t make sense.

Jetta’s relationships with other characters is what makes her narration shine, for she loves and protects fiercely, and she feels so keenly. I adore her relationship with her parents, overprotective but always loving. Her chemistry with Leo gave me heart-eyes and he’s a charismatic presence in his own right. Her mental illness is handled well, especially in these relationships, and is informed by Heilig’s own experience with bipolar disorder. Jetta’s growing recognition of Aquitan propaganda is also refreshing; often in fantasy, this narrative is given to a character of the privileged class, but Chakrans also internalize the hostility to their culture, and it’s great to witness Jetta work through it.

LEGARDE: We are civilization, in this place. We will bring them into the modern age, whether they like it or not.

Some chapters are written in the style of a script, telling events happening outside of Jetta’s point of view and giving a glimpse of external events affecting her journey. One of the most evocative scenes happens early in one of these scenes, during an assault upon an Aquitan camp, and for the rest of the book, I became obsessed with the idea of seeing this story adapted as a stage play or miniseries. There’s an incredibly dramatic quality to not just the writing, but the core events of the story. Telegrams, letters, posters, and song lyrics also intersperse the story.

There is plenty more about FOR A MUSE OF FIRE that I can’t expound upon at the risk of spoilers; it’s a story best experienced as it unravels, as it does for Jetta. Once the story takes off, it doesn’t take long to trust in Heilig’s writing, which takes care in weaving all the threads into a thematically satisfying work, and also knows how to make me gasp right when I think I know what’s going on. It’s not just a magical and transportive fantasy, but an addicting, heart-pounding one that earns every one of its moments. With every step of Jetta’s journey, the world grows in equal parts hope and darkness. I sobbed, I swooned, and I’m hungry for more.

FOR A MUSE OF FIRE, the first of a trilogy, is out TODAY! 

Thanks Heidi for doing a Q&A with us!

1) You have a background in theatre. What drew you to performing and writing about performers?
I do! I love theatre and used to dream of being an actor. Honestly, I think it was the combination of my love of story telling and my mania that first drew me to performing. The thrill and the attention were an amazing feeling, especially when I was high on the rollercoaster. But that’s not really what it takes to make it as an actor, and for various reasons I moved rather quickly from being onstage to writing for the stage, and from there to writing novels. Luckily, I also love books, but I did miss working with theatre people. They’re some of the most fascinating and generous folks I’ve ever met. So writing about the glitz and glitter of life on stage was tons of fun, but the part I liked best was the camaraderie and the backstage ribbing.

2) What’s your favorite tidbit about the story’s world? Are there any interesting details that didn’t make it into the finished book?
Oh my gosh, there is so much that didn’t make it into the final book. True (and terrible) story: I had to completely rewrite the book because I turned in the first draft at the end of October, 2016, and then November happened and the issues I thought would be pertinent no longer seemed as pressing. There are about 15 pages total of the original draft in the finished book. From later drafts, I actually cut a long and involved leatherworking/puppetmaking scene that was lovely but didn’t further the plot. But my favorite bit about the world that DID make it in is that I wrote it with the diaspora in mind. My ancestors came over to Hawaii at a time when assimilation was king, so I have a strange relationship to my Chinese side–especially because, likely due to the assimilation we faced, all of us Asians in Hawaii borrow and share cultural elements with each other. So Asia itself feels a bit mystical to me in a way that is likely familiar to many Asian Americans. When I wrote about sapphire mines and jungles and red dragons and incense, I was pulling together a bouquet of the information and influences I was given when I was growing up as a mixed race person growing up on an island far from where my distant ancestors lived and died, and I loved that. I loved making a homeland for myself, even if it’s only a fantasy.
3) What’s your favorite chapter?
Anything at Le Perl! Is that too easy an answer? I loved writing the banter between the show girls. I also loved the very last “chapter,” though it’s really just a note. I won’t say more so as not to spoil it but its been fun watching the reactions from readers to that one.

4) Jetta’s story has two more books to go. What’s something not-too-spoilery about what’s to come? 

“I wish I could tell you!” was my first thought, but not because i don’t want to spoil it. Rather, because having rewritten MUSE completely, going back to my series outline now is like trying on someone else’s worn tennis shoes. It fits all wrong and also UGH. But I did just hand in my first draft of book two, A KINGDOM FOR A STAGE, and I can tell you that we get to meet Le Trepas in all his glory. Also, more dragons this time around.
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