Etched in Fire

by Beth Hudson
Alban Lake Publishing

"As they sat in the house, shuttered, locked, and yet unsafe, the world was darkening around them. Maelen's comfortable life warped around her like an aging boat, sinking her into deep, relentless waters."

Bravery comes in many forms. There are those who fight, and there are those who make difficult decisions. For Maelen Saltbearer, bravery comes in the form of a passionate fire that burns deep within her. Maelen has always been a headstrong child, but poor timing and terrible luck throws her into a situation that awakens the fire inside, as well as another power she didn't even know she possessed.

Maelen and her parents are visiting the grand city of Kaelennar on a routine trading expedition. Maelen's first trip to the city might just become her last. Before she gets a chance to take in the grand sights, the city is besieged by a race of demonic beings called esch and is soon under their control. Maelen and her family are taken in by a local family, and all they can do is watch helplessly as horrors unfold around them. Overnight, the city goes from being a harbor and trade center, to being a dark place of fear, hunger, and death. Far from being downtrodden by the events, Maelen discovers an urge to fight back against the oppression of her new overseers. If it were up to her, she'd take up arms and take down every last esch by herself. Instead, she settles on assisting in a different way, by escorting children through the sewers and smuggling them out of the city and into potential safety.

Maelen's journey is not one of a fighter, nor is she the grand hero who rises up to save the city. Her battles are fought off to the side, removed from the main conflict. That's what makes her story all the more potent. Beth Hudson delivers a heart-wrenching story of finding immense strength from indescribable loss. Through superb prose and captivating characters, Hudson gives readers a glimpse into what it means to be brave when all odds are stacked against you and a happy ending is nowhere in sight.

Protagonists are often given a chance to grow by developing bravery. Maelen is thrust into the story ready to fight. Her growth comes through learning to control her rage and determination, and channel it towards a productive outlet. She learns that there are different ways to fight, and sometimes actions that appear "passive" are more important than giving your life in a senseless battle. She also finds that the fire that glows inside her may be more than just anger. It may be magic.

Hudson creates a world rich with history and lore, and she effortlessly weaves it through the narrative. The author cites fantasy classics like J.R.R. Tolkien and Lloyd Alexander as inspiration for the book, and their presence is certainly felt throughout the story. Maelen's world has complex race relations, fantastic creatures who speak the human tongue, a religion based on a group of coexisting gods, and many other intriguing aspects. All the different parts of the world's mythology come together to contribute to the story and Maelen's struggles to survive. Hudson's portrayal of a city in peril is often brutal and graphic, and it explores heavy themes like the ease of turning people against one another and the effect desperation has on people who have nothing left to lose.

Etched in Fire could have been a typical hero's tale. Instead, the book goes above and beyond by centering on Maelen, a character as strong-willed and heroic as any knight. It feels like a too-short glimmer of Maelen's saga, but will hopefully be followed up with more tales of her adventures. After such a powerful introduction, it's hard to let a character like Maelen go.

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