I am most unusually going to indulge in spoilers in this review; be warned.
It seems that there are two magic rubies, the Heart of Light and the Soul of Fire. The latter was stolen in the days of Charlemagne, and he used it to gather up all of the magic in Europe to himself and his descendants, thus establishing what one might call the magical right of kings. By the Victorian era, of course, the blood of Charlemagne has diffused throughout Europe; magical ability, once the mark of nobility, is now popping up in the oddest places.
Once used, the Soul of Fire was apparently used up, and was lost. And now everybody and his brother are trying to find the Heart of Light, in order to use it as Charlemagne used the Soul of Fire. This search drove the action in the previous book, Heart of Light, at the end of which we discover that the purpose of the two gems is to stabilize the world, and if the Heart of Light is found and used as everybody intends, the world as we know it will come to an end. (Bom-bom-BOM, as my second son would say.) Therefore, Soul of Fire begins with Peter Farewell, one of the principles of the previous book, searching for the Soul of Fire in order to rescue it from the bad guys and save the world. As the book begins he has traced it to India; and he immediately has a sort of cute-meet with Sofie, a young Englishwoman, which is to say he saves her from falling to her death from a balcony as she’s fleeing her home in order to avoid an unwelcome marriage to an ugly British raja. Interesting how he does it; for our Peter is a were-dragon, and he saves her by changing shape and catching her. This was extremely dangerous for him, because were-creatures of all sorts are subject to immediate execution by the English crown, and he had previously managed to keep his affliction secret.
Peter’s relationship with “the dragon” is interesting. He has trouble controlling the change, especially in confined, crowded spaces; and he has trouble controlling “the dragon”; and of course this is a romance, and of course, being an English gentleman (his father’s an earl) Peter has scruples about marrying any one, even though narrative causality dictates that he’s going to marry the young lady he rescued. She, of course, is the latest descendant of the family to whom Charlemagne gave the Soul of Fire for safe-keeping, a charge the family has been faithful to through the centuries.
Will fierce beast win fair lady? Will the world be saved? These are the ostensible subjects of the tale…but things are not as they seem. The real subject of the book seems to be alienation: and specifically the alienation of the were-folk of Europe, who have been raised to loathe themselves. We see this in Peter, who regards his dragon-self as The Other, the Not To Be Trusted. And as the tale proceeds, and he is forced to rely more on “the dragon” in aid of his young lady, he grows less conflicted…and discovers that perhaps “the dragon” can be trusted after all, if only he embraces it and accepts it as part of himself.
Two other plot elements cast light on his personal growth. First, there are the were-folk of India. It develops that large portions of the Indian population, especially among the higher castes, are were-folk. We meet were-monkeys, were-elephants, and were-tigers. (The raja who was seeking to marry Sofie is in fact the King of the Tigers.) They have no problems with being were-folk; and the normal humans around them have no trouble with it either, though they walk carefully when were-tigers are in view. So coexistence, were-folk with normal humans, and were-folk with themselves, are both possible.
May I say I really like the prevalence of were-folk in India; it makes Hoyt’s India much more interesting than most.
The second plot element is a young British soldier, who has also been sent to India to find the Soul of Fire. He’s acquainted with young Sofie (indeed, his superiors tried to persuade him to marry her), but though he likes her, he’s not attracted to her. And why not? Because, overwhelmed by Peter Farewell’s dragonly glamour, he discovers (to his shock and dismay) that he’s attracted to men. His subsequent emotional turmoil and alienation is exactly parallel with Peter Farewell’s, and it takes him the rest of the book to find peace, living in the wilds of India with a sepoy who happens to be a were-elephant and who fell in love with him at first sight. The sepoy suffers alienation as well; his family rejects him, not because he loves men but because he loves an Englishman, who is outside the caste system.
Now, all of this is somewhat interesting. Alienation and marginalization of The Other are common themes in fantasy and science fiction, and I’ve sometimes wondered when reading books like Kathryn Kurtz’ Chronicles of the Deryni whether there was a homosexual subtext in the author’s mind. This is the first book I’ve read that makes the link quite so explicit. Now, I don’t object to Hoyt dealing with themes like this explicitly. It’s certainly true that having a false self-image is harmful, and that accepting yourself as you presently are is the beginning of maturity. (Though not the end of it; at any time, there are aspects of each of us that need to get cleaned up.) And it’s certainly been true that to be gay in America has been fraught with alienation.
No, what I object to is the hamfisted way in which Hoyt pulls in the relationship between the two young soldiers. Suddenly, in the dark of the jungle, the Englishman looks in the Hindu’s eyes, and smells his breath, and suddenly, pretty much out of a clear blue sky, passion erupts and the curtain descends (for which I am grateful; and I will note with equal gratitude that all of the sex in the book is either offstage or glossed over). It was clumsy, and it seemed out of place, and from my point of view, it didn’t aid the story; rather, it shouted, “Here’s the point, people! Here’s the point! Pay attention!” And this is almost never a good thing in a work of fiction, no matter who’s writing it or what the point is. Sigh.