Silk Fire by Zabé Ellor

Set in a planet-sized matriarchal city where magic and technology freely bleed together, a male courtesan’s quest for vengeance against his aristocrat father draws him into an ancient struggle between dragons, necromancers, and his home district’s violent history.

Koré knew that meddling in politics could end badly, particularly when trying to sabotage his aristocratic father’s campaign before it destroys the city he has come to love. And when a chance encounter with a dying god imbues him with magic-breathing powers, it gets worse: he suddenly becomes a commodity – and a political player.

But the corruption in his city runs deeper than just one man, and an ally’s betrayal unleashes an army of the dead on his home street. Koré must trust the world with his deepest secret to stand beside the woman and man he’s finally let himself love, as only the bright truth of dragon’s fire can break the iron fist of a necromancer’s hold.

**

I received a copy of this book from NetGalley. All thoughts are my own.

Review:

Silk Fire is an ambitious project, combining expansive epic fantasy worldbuilding in a re-imagined matriarchal society, political intrigue, social commentary, and Kore’s abusive backstory. Unfortunately, Silk Fire utterly buckles under the weight of its own ambitions.

So how did this book fail so badly? Let’s start with societal worldbuilding. The cultural background of Silk Fire is set in this alt-world matriarchy, where women take positions of power and men are largely expected to stay at home, raise children, etc, etc. I’ve followed the author’s Twitter for a while and part of my interest in this book was his talk about re-imagining how sexism works in a matriarchal society. HOWEVER, the sexism in this book is dialed up to like, a 12. It’s actually insane how much sexist rhetoric is in this book. Every other page there’s something about how, ‘oh you’re just a boy you’re too emotional to hold a position of power’, ‘be a good boy and let the women do the work’ etc etc. By 30% in, I was cringing every time I read the word ‘boy’. Instead of any thoughtful critique to modern sexism or really any design at all, the reader is just bombarded with slurs and slurs and slurs.

As for the rest of the worldbuilding, Silk Fire is set in a futuristic, sci-fi setting in a city the size of a planet. There’s a lot of vaguely mentioned history, wars, dead gods, dragons, etc. Lots of history and a ton of content to be explored, as expected in epic fantasy. None of it gets explored. Characters will make references to this war or that event or some person and because none of this has ever been explained to the reader, it gets progressively more and more difficult to follow the significance of any plot point. To be fair, it’s very clear Ellor put a lot of work into developing this world,. The problem is that none of it is explained.

To me, the main greatest failing in the worldbuilding is Ellor’s inability to explain and reasonably justify his world spatially and temporally. Our city (which I think remained unnamed?) consists of multiple districts, of which we focus on War. In a city the size of a planet, how big is this district? The size of a large modern city? A country? Unspecified. Within War, there are vague allusions to one or two neighborhoods with housing problems, but we’re largely confined to Victory Street, where our MC Kore runs his brothel. With how little effort is put into describing War beyond vague references and single paragraphs, this world just feels incredibly empty. My personal headcanon is the War is some backwards district the size of the Vatican City that every other district does their best to ignore.

Near the beginning of the book, a Lost District shows up! They’ve been missing for ten thousand years and bring with them all this cool old technology that no one has seen for ten thousand years! Which is great, but, that brings up a whole host of questions. This city has had some semi-continual governing system for ten thousand years? What the hell have the humans down in that lost district been doing for ten thousand years and why only resurface now? The Industrial Revolution only happened about 200 years ago, what kind of strange new tech does this district have? Can the population of this district still breed with all the other humans?? If you’re thinking these are interesting questions that get explored and answered, don’t get your hopes up. Kore’s dad throws a parade for them and they never get talked about again.

(For brevity, I’m ignoring the dragons, dinosaurs, necromancers, and zombies)

So let’s move to the actual plot. Surprisingly, the plot is fairly straightforward. Kore’s dad is running for judgeship (yay gender equality?) but because his dad is an absolute monster, Kore’s sole mission in life is to make sure his opponent gets elected. It’s one part political intrigue, one part fantasy adventure when Kore has to run off to different areas to do stuff and obviously shit goes down. The issue is because the worldbuilding is so poorly developed, there’s no weight to anything MC does. By 50% of the book, I should at least have some idea of how important such and such’s endorsement would be to the campaign.

The pacing of Silk Fire is strange in a way that gives the reader or characters zero room to emotionally process some pretty major events. (see the Lost District above.) There’s a part about midway through where Kore’s brothel gets raided, soldiers come in and smash everything up for about a page, they get kicked out in about a page, a big emotional reveal happens one page later, then bam sex scene. Kore’s brothel means a lot to him! When’s he supposed to process that all his furniture is in pieces and his employees are banged up (non-consensually)? This is breakneck speed is consistent throughout the book and so many events and consequences are brushed over to move on to the next piece of action.

Honestly, the characters were one of the better parts of this book, and even then I struggled. Mainly due to Kore running around every other page to remind the reader that he’s a monster and an awful human being and just really the worst. If you cut all that out and substituted it with proper explanations of the worldbuilding, I think this book would have been in a much better place. The author has a really bad tendency to really hammer in how you should think about each character with long, Twitter-style monologues waxing morals at the reader that I’m just so so over.

Perhaps the one saving grace is the interlude chapters. Throughout the book, we get short interlude chapters that show Kore’s past as isolated, single stories and those work really well! They’re self-contained, I know the motivations and background of all the characters, and the entire plot makes sense. The (many) sex scenes were also well written.

Overall, I rate this book a 1.5/5. This premise of a bisexual sex worker engaging in political intrigue behind the scenes was one of my most anticipated books for 2022. Unfortunately, the execution was abysmal.


r/Fantasy 2021-22 Bingo Squares:

  • Standalone (hard mode)
  • Author Uses Initials
  • Published in 2022
  • Non-Human Protag
  • Shapeshifters
  • Title sans the, a/an, and, or, if, but
  • Feature Biological Family Ties

Publication Date: 5 July 2022
Publisher: Rebellion
Format: ebook, ARC
Pages: 475
Word Count: ~132,000
ISBN: 1781089760 
Buy It Here: Amazon | Google Books | Barnes and Nobles | Goodreads

3 thoughts on “Silk Fire by Zabé Ellor

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