The worldbuilding was my favorite aspect of this novel. Elemental magic is commonplace, but there are also hints of magic that transcends energy hurling combat spells. There is depth in the nations and institutions of this world. The ethnicities are intertwined with the magic, and all of it has a sense of history.
The opening chapters of Burn Red Skies however contain an excess of worldbuilding jargon, cultural details and nation building information that left me feeling a little confused and overwhelmed. In particular, I didn’t feel like the concept of “the Purge” and what exactly it all meant was properly defined. It was an important element of the story that didn’t work for me in a number of ways. The confusion was a big part of it, but also character attitudes about it and those involved in it felt unrealistic and inconsistent. A number of the characters are essentially engaged in a genocide and any awareness of wrongdoing both on the part of the perpetrators and those fighting against them seems to come and go as is convenient for the story. Sure they’re ‘doing a genocide’, but if you give them a chance, you’ll see they’re all right, they’re just following orders. I dunno. Valeria and Valk were both portrayed too sympathetically, in my opinion, and I just couldn’t ignore that they were supposedly burning people alive in their villages. The Purge was central to the plot, and yet it was glossed over in many regards. This more than anything else kept me from really enjoying the story, as characters’ emotions revolving around such extreme violence didn’t feel authentic. This, in turn, made many other elements feel just a little off.
Aside from the issues in the above paragraph, which trickled down to all of the characters, I did enjoy the protagonist, Dove. She is a survivor of the Purge, a mute, and a powerful Fireborne. Her journey takes her all across the land, during which she grows from a timid and traumatized young woman into a real rebel. Dancer and Bard are my favorites, though. Their passages stole the show, as far as I’m concerned, full of banter and playfulness.
On the whole, this novel did not work for me on a number of levels. The emotional core of the story was compromised by the inconsistencies revolving around the Purge. I can certainly see, however, why others would enjoy it, and why it is a finalist in this year’s SPFBO. In general the writing is good, the worldbuilding is interesting, and there are real characters evolving here. So, if you are looking for an epic fantasy with a bit of court intrigue, some action-packed battle scenes, and a novel take on dragons, Burn Red Skies might be right for you.
Final Score: 5.5