Catchfire by Graham Dunstan Martin (Feydom #2)

As I said in my review of Giftwish, Martin's first novel was definitely a fairly familiar structure for a fantasy story. A handsome young peasant with a magical sword is sent off on a quest by a wizard to slay an evil necromancer and become king. One of the most interesting points about Catchfire I noticed right from the get go therefore, was simply that I couldn't predict where and what the book's structure might be, particularly since the action takes some very unexpected twists and turns. Partly this is due to the need of the plot to deal with several loose ends from Giftwish, the spell stopping the magic of Kendark from flowing into the kingdom of Feydom, the duplicitous wizard Hoodwill and the murderous baron Fetch who wanted to sacrifice Ewan to renew the spell, and partly it is simply because Martin I think, having established himself with a familiar story wanted to be a little more free with the structure of his plot than the confines of a basic quest story would allow him to be, quite a contrast to many fantasy writers who unfortunately, after achieving one quest goal in the first book, simply find that another journey and quest is needed, as though each book in a series is a new level in a role playing game rather than a continuation and exploration of events.

Most of the book therefore takes place not in the wild and magical land of Kendark, but in the supposedly civilized land of Feydom, albeit a civilized land suffering a severe drought due to the spell which locks all magic out of the country. This also means that Ewan, and more specifically Catchfire lose their access to magic for a good proportion of the book, and the ways in which both are able to think on their feet, adapt to situations and use what knowledge they have quite pragmatically is extremely satisfying. One thing which makes both characters highly appealing (especially Ewan), is the way that Martin, instead of trying to write in overly familiar main character doubts and conflicts of the "oh no can I really do this?" type, simply presents both Ewan and Catchfire with bad situations to deal with and shows how they get entangled in them and eventually get out, for example when both are captured by Barron Fetch Catchfire impersonates princess Starfall (whose soul she acquired in the previous book due to a magical accident), but is horrified to learn Starfall is betrothed to the brutal baron, thus facing her with a literal out of the frying pan moment.

Indeed to say the book was written in 1981, how Catchfire deals with this proposed marriage herself, with a flat out refusal, especially notable given that the king, Starfall’s father is presented as an amiable but extremely weak and easily swayed man, is actually quite an awesome moment and just another reason why I really like Catchfire, even without her magic she is anything but a traditional damsel.

Ewan as well is here much more fun to be around than he was in the previous book, both in his ability to get out of trouble (he engineers quite a refreshingly direct way to escape imprisonment), and with some of the conflicts which occur later when he acquires a surrogate daughter (or little sister being as Ewan and Catchfire are both 16), the 9 year old Talisman. Talisman indeed is almost a main character in her own right, and is endearing in the best possible sense, but also extremely exasperating, especially in her constant questions and level of energy. While the trope of the little girl who runs into trouble is a rather well worn one, Martin just writes Talisman as so engaging you can't but love her, even as you understand why she's a bit of a shock to Ewan's system, plus as a little girl who likes dragons and is sweet without being cloying she definitely gets points from me.

My only minor issue character wise is firstly (as commented in the book itself), neither main character really comes across or behaves like a sixteen year old, and more critically one rather odd moment with Catchfire at the start of the novel felt so off as to almost be a different character. This is when, confronted by an underground monster a trembling Catchfire clings on to Ewan, after which Ewan unquestionably takes charge for a short while. It is not that I mind characters being afraid or supporting each other (indeed done right it is beautiful), had Martin made this fear specifically part of Catchfire's character I wouldn't have minded. However it appeared that for a short while he was writing Catchfire in a slightly stereotypical, "lady afraid of the dark" kind of way, rather the way in the previous book he gave Ewan the typical "Can I be be king" conflict, which rarely makes for satisfactory reading, though fortunately she comes out of this after a couple of chapters.

The writing style generally is a step up even from Giftwish, and Martin shows himself able to not only write with poetry, poise and flare, without becoming overly ponderous, but also deal honestly and beautifully with themes of life and death, growth and change, good and evil and the relationship of shadows of emotion and the light of cold pure intellect. Indeed the book's major villain, the dazzling white wizard Hoodwill it is revealed is as dangerous as he is precisely because he has no shadow, and thus has no ability to doubt himself or his convictions. The things we see Hoodwill willing to do to uphold his beliefs and cast out what he perceives to be the evils of the magic of Kendark, both personally and as the de facto ruler of Feydom are quite extreme, a notable lesson in the dangers of absolutes, and one especially relevant in the world of today.

Martin also doesn't leave humour behind, particularly due to Talisman; albeit we see a little less of the plump and cheerful wizard Capostaff in this book than we did previously, still with how engaging Martin's characters are the book is never protracted even in its discussion of major themes and ideas.

While Martin does miss out a lot of the time skips which caused trouble in the first book and were possibly one of the indications Giftwish was a novel for younger readers, here he does compress his plot a little too much in the book's latter half, simply skipping consequences of certain actions to move to later scenes. This means potentially interesting elements of the plot do not get enough attention and the book's pace over all suffers.

For example, early in on it is revealed that Hoodwill has begun a campaign of aggression against the border marches of Hemdark who speak an older tongue which Hoodwill is convinced is born of evil magic. This is redolent of several similar periods in history where speakers of a given language are persecuted, particularly since the hypocritical Hoodwill in fact does speak the old tongue himself. The resentment of the people of Hemdark and their suspicion of strangers, even of Ewan and Catchfire who want to help them feels extremely real and threatening; however Martin instantly sidesteps the conflict when Catchfire's ability to speak the old tongue convinces the ruler of Hemdark that they're friends. While a nice moment for Catchfire, at the same time this sudden abiding friendship of a suspicious persecuted ruler definitely feels rather too abrupt a change, particularly since the persecution perpetrated by the Feylanders on the people of Hemdark is never mentioned again.

Similarly, towards the end of the novel it's revealed that Feydom itself is invaded by a northern land called Kenort about which we know absolutely nothing, except that they seek to take advantage of the famine starved Feylanders. This is a major weakness in the book's structure, since while the battle, employing magic and unexpected allies is truly awesome albeit brief, as well as being a far larger battle than we've seen before it does feel rather superfluous, likewise Martin really should've done more with the tensions between Feydom, Kendark and the surrounding lands rather than attributing everything bad automatically to the rule of wizard Hoodwill. This ease of resolution around conflicts, especially with what should be majorly tense events such as wars and political alliances is one of the few respects in which Catchfire is definitely written with a younger audience in mind.

One thing Martin does however do magnificently (more so than many authors), is create magical creatures and monsters who are not just terrifyingly weird, but also colourful and bubbling with personality. We first meet the dragon Whirlwind, the grumpier husband of the dragon Earthquake from the second book, and then return to the oak giants, giants who are, despite their resemblance to trees and the necromancer's habit of planting them, very different from Tolkien’s ents, they for example have been eating humans only because they were unable to harvest enough trees to snack on.

Again however, it is a shame that Martin doesn't deal with the oak giants more, indeed the scene in which Ewan confronts them stops as he goes to consult their elder, the oak witch (who goes by the wonderfully nuanced name of Thousandring), who we don't actually see since the next scene involves Ewan's admittedly fascinating plan to break the spell blocking Kendark's magic from Feydom.

That being said, the way Martin writes magic, with style and mystery, is much the way he writes traditional fantasy creatures and will be a pleasure to any lovers of the epic and wild. I do wish Martin had provided translations for more of the Latin spells (the wonderfully named Sorcerish language in the book), as well as the old tongue, since while they sound magnificent, I'd love to know what they mean, indeed I do not know what language "the Old tongue" even corresponds to (I suspect old English but I'm not certain).

The book's compression seriously affects its ending, since with the sudden and abrupt focus on the battle the fact that Hoodwill is still a ruthless and evil wizard who attempted to kill Ewan at the very start of the duology is conveniently forgotten, and though Hoodwill does appear for a satisfying and genuinely threatening final confrontation, it's not so much a showing of his true colours as the plot focusing back on him now that the random invaders from Kennort are dealt with. The epilogue however is a truly beautiful moment, and makes a fantastic send-off to the series, particularly since though one hint does suggest Martin was considering a third Feydom novel, it was never written.

In general Catchfire is a step-up from Giftwish. Though sadly edited towards its second half, and not as long as it needs to be, clocking in at just over nine hours (half an hour longer than Giftwish), the gorgeous writing, beautifully poetic magic, the fun and amazing characters (especially Catchfire herself), make this one a great experience, and while this is the final book set in Feydom I will certainly read anything else by Martin if I can.

8/10 Not to be confused with the second Hunger Games novel, but a great book in its own right

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