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From Unseen Fire by Cass Morris

book cover of From Unseen Fire

From Unseen Fire is the first instalment of a series set in an alt-history version of Ancient Rome. Set in the first century BCE, it shows us a version of Rome where magic exists, but the city is called “Aven” for some reason I’m not clear on. Nonetheless, the setting is interesting, including the magic system in place – I liked the way that other peoples (like the Lusetanians in Iberia) have their own magical systems with entirely different foundations from the one the Aventans have.

The book is definitely on the slower side. There are a lot of different minor characters and a lot of world-building that it takes its time to establish before the action finally ramps up in the last 100 pages or so. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but for my tastes this book unfolded more slowly than I’d like.

There are two major political plotlines that the book covers. Firstly, there are the upcoming elections in Aven, where the contest primarily comes down to charismatic “man of the people” Sempronius Tarren, and a bunch of unpleasant, conservative old fogeys. Then there is a war developing in Iberia, where a local chieftain, Ekialde, is prepared to resort to dark magic in his determination to get the Aventans out. On top of that, you also have a number of character-driven storylines: Latona Vitellia is probably the book’s most central character, with access to extremely strong magic in the elements of Fire and Spirit, but forbidden (by her father) to demonstrate her power and stuck in a loveless marriage to some boring sod. When she meets Sempronius, there's an instant spark of attraction and he begins encouraging her not to allow herself to be clamped down.

When the storylines were in motion, I felt really engaged by this book. It did feel, though, like there was a lot of downtime between significant events. I also think some of the characters were more interesting than others. A lot of the antagonists, in particular, didn’t seem to have anything much going for them which might make you enjoy the pages they were on. I did enjoy reading about Sempronius (well, mostly the romance between him and Latona), but I do guiltily have to agree with another review which pointed out there wasn’t much depth to him either… (and while I’m at it, I might add that I agree with a ton of what’s in that review, even though I think I enjoyed the book more overall than that reviewer did.)

Three stars because I did enjoy this book, particularly the way it came together at the end, even though there were some slower times where I was tempted to rate it two. The sequel doesn’t seem to be coming out any time in the near future, but it could be an improvement on this book, if it can trust that we know the world-building by now and deserve to be thrown a bit more action.

★★★

a cartoony avatar of Jessica Smith is a left-wing feminist who loves animals, books, gaming, and cooking; she’s also very interested in linguistics, history, technology and society.