Haunted Stars Publishing, 2013, 185 pages
The Red Empress is the only home Erzelle has known since the day her family was lured aboard and murdered, victims of a grisly ritual meant to make the elite immortal. Erzelle plays her harp for the diners inside this ghoul-infested riverboat, knowing her own death looms, escaping through the music that's all she has left of her parents.
Her nightmare's upended in the space of a day by the arrival of Olyssa, a fellow musician, but so much more.
Erzelle is swept up in Olyssa's quest to find her ensorcelled sister Lilla, a journey across a mutated landscape that leads them to an enemy responsible for the deaths of millions. To stop the slaughter of countless more, the pair has no choice but to draw on the deadly magics that reshaped the world... a power that's as dangerous to its wielders as it is to its foes, that's killing Erzelle even as she fights to control it.
From the book's description, I thought the story was going to be a sort of vampire/undead apocalypse, with humans struggling to survive after the dead rise. But The Black Fire Concerto is more original than that. At some point in the past (before the protagonist, Erzelle was born, but apparently within a generation), something transformed the world and ended civilization. Now clans of cannibalistic ghouls enjoy immortality by eating the flesh of other infected undead, but there are also other sorts of mutated creatures, sorcery, and strange psychic phenomenon.
Erzelle is twelve years old, kept as a "pet" by a ghoul family for her musical skills, knowing every night that they might, at any time, decide to kill her and eat her. Then another musician comes on board her riverboat - a tall, imposing woman named Olyssa. Olyssa has clearly been lured aboard to entertain her "hosts" and then become their next meal, but she turns out to have an impressive assortment of talents and special artifacts, and ends up freeing Erzelle after a dishing out gratifyingly bloody justice to her erstwhile hosts - women, children, and old men included.
Erzelle learns that Olyssa is on a quest to find and save her lost sister. The world they travel through, a post-apocalyptic North America by the clues given, has tribes of people mutated by magic, places where bones planted in the earth become animated undead, and various strange artifacts and creatures created by unknown forces. Erzelle turns out to have powers of her own, unleashed by her musical abilities, like Olyssa.
Their quest leads them, of course, to Olyssa's sister. The climax reveals a Big Bad who is responsible for the apocalypse in the first place, and ends somewhat open-ended, with obvious potential for a sequel.
This was a decent dark fantasy that is more original than your typical zombie/vampire apocalypse, with magic described as animated black fire and creatures constructed from flesh and bone. The story did take some predictable paths, and I felt like the dynamic between Erzelle, supposedly twelve but rarely acting like it, and her teacher Olyssa never really came alive in a way that would have made me more invested in their relationship and their fate. However, I would probably read the sequel if the description sounded interesting enough. Rating: 6/10.
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