Cast In Firelight by Dana Swift opens in front of a towering door of ice, with eight-year-old Adraa and her parents waiting to be let into the home of her future betrothed, the prince of Naupure. Rich with descriptions of magic and castles that brought me back to my first years of reading, Adraa’s story reminded me of when I’d find myself adrift in one fantastical setting or another, adventuring alongside wizards or fairies or demigods.
In this first chapter, Adraa’s stubborn indignance at her betrothal is the source for an entertaining, if a bit sad, inner dialogue, and it sets the tone for the rest of the novel. In the next, much time has passed, with a 17-year-old Adraa, heir to Belwar, once again forced to reckon with her impending marriage to the person she’s been exchanging passive-aggressive letters with for the past 7 years. The reader quickly learns that there are larger forces at work—Adraa’s light-giving invention is being scalped by a vicious gang, leaving the working poor of the land vulnerable, and it’s quickly established that the two will have much more to deal with than each other when they finally meet.
Adraa’s voice is consistently vivid and witty, a calamity of exclamations and exaggerated motions. Her dedication to her people is admirable, and her struggles with magic make her all the more believable. Jatin’s relatively chilled perspective strikes an obvious juxtaposition to Adraa’s fire and plays into their compatibility as a team. While we only got a few scenes of them at each other’s backs, I hope to see more of how they use each other’s strengths in battle to overcome what are sure to be greater trials after that surprising end to the first of the duology.
In Cast In Firelight, though the lore is established at the beginning of the book with a glossary of terms, including the names and capabilities of all the Gods, there is a question among some characters of whether these deities do in fact exist, and if so, what their intentions are. This is an established and growing trope in popular YA Fantasy and Sci-fi, a genre which some authors have taken in a grittier, more introspective turn in the past few years, and has produced fascinating examinations of religion and the human psyche. A release that utilizes this trope that readily comes to mind is Wicked Saints, a favorite among enthusiasts of the bloody, dark, and wintry variety, and its sequel Ruthless Gods.
There has been light controversy surrounding the fact that this book is not an ownvoices novel. This is a very complex and ongoing discussion in the book community that I won’t analyze too deeply, but I wanted to share my thoughts as someone whose ethnicity is depicted in the novel. Let the record stand that I did not consult my fellow brown people at the biannual Desi zoom meeting last week, so my views do not reflect anyone but myself.
I really enjoyed reading the book, and I had no problem with it not being ownvoices. The main reason is that racial identity isn’t the focus of the book. This is not racial trauma porn a la American Dirt. This is a book about people who do magic in a world that needs saving, and they just happen to be brown. If Adraa went on long tangents about her struggles as a POC and oppression, I would be telling a much different story. What Swift has done works because her characters just are. They aren’t tokenized or stereotyped, they’re just brown or queer or people with disabilities because that’s how the world is. As much as I value seeing my experiences as *insert marginalized identity here* on-page, and ownvoices novels more generally, if authors are going to write outside their own identities, I believe this is the way to do it. Every kid should be able to see themselves as the hero of the story, and that begins with normalizing diversity in literature.
One of the most tired tropes to grace the pages of YA Fiction—dare I say, all of fiction—is the face-slap. Who actually does this? I will make the daring proposition that these slap-happy love-interests are an overrepresented population in media which should be quickly Vaudeville-hooked off the stage of YA Fiction and tossed into the void.
When I saw the first chapter of Swift’s novel was “I Meet The Love Of My Life And Slap Him In the Face,” I nearly drove my page-flipping hand through a wall. Luckily, Swift’s use of the trope is one that was shockingly, not as cringe-inducing as I first expected. For one, they’re children, not grown-ups who should know to express their emotions sans violence. Secondly, whether or not it was intentional, Adraa’s actions aren’t brushed over. The best outcome would have been no slapping whatsoever, considering the clear comedic implications and the inherent corniness, but it’s one of the better utilizations of the trope I’ve seen in a while.
This theme remains throughout the novel. Every time I prepped the obligatory sigh, eye-roll one-two punch, I found myself smiling at Swift’s inventive uses of the common tools of the trade.
I enjoyed Cast In Firelight much more than I first expected. Adraa is a protagonist who leaps off the page, and her relationship with Jatin is as sweet as it is entertaining. The magic system, while elemental and inherently derivative, is effectively utilized to entrance the reader and enhance the plot itself. The sociopolitical landscape of Wickery builds throughout the novel to become just as interesting as Adraa herself. From the Pire Islands to Naupure, this new world is diverse in culture and rife with turmoil, and I can’t wait to continue exploring it in the sequel.