Secluded from the everyday woes of the world in the Verdiano Rural Conservatory for the Study of Music, sixteen-year-old Eliana's main goal in life is to graduate, and achieve a posting with an orchestra in Verdia's capital city of Cuore, and make her family proud of her. But Verdia is a land suffering from famine and the aftermath of a vicious war, and held tight in the grip of an oppressive theocracy that has wrapped its fingers around Emperor and land alike. The Old Ways of the One God are being stamped out, supplanted by the Lord and Lady, enforced by the cruel order known as the Fedeli, who are in turn quietly supported by the mysterious Circle, mages who alter the course of nature itself. And as with all times of change, everything is coming to a boil, with one girl caught in the middle.
Eliana's new roommate, Mira, seems to be a stranger; none of the other students realize how strange at first. But when she begins to teach and spread the songs and music of the Old Way, defying law and self-preservation, Mira becomes a lightning rod for fear and suspicion, an atmosphere which ultimately conjures up the dreaded Fedeli and marks the beginning of a whole new life for Eliana. For when one of her friends is killed for heresy, and another kidnapped by the Circle, Eliana can no longer stay ignorant and hidden away from the world. She sets forth, traveling through a land ripped apart by war and fear, terrorized by the people sworn to protect it. She'll discover the horrible truth about her family, descend into a place governed by hopelessness, and be initiated into the Old Way... and a rebellion will come to life around her. Verdia's only hope lies in the drive and inexperience of a young woman and her fractious allies. Is she up for the task?
Fires of the Faithful is the debut novel from Naomi Kritzer, who has applied her degree in religion in an imaginative way. It's easy to see the parallels between her made-up world and the real one; the Old Way as presented is extremely close to Catholicism, with a gender change or two and some surface alteration, while the Fedeli invoke images of the Inquisition. I'm no scholar of religion to read much more into this, but to the untrained eye, the allegories about how one religion can all but stamp out another, either incorporating the old rituals and ways or strangling them with fear and tyranny, are pretty obvious. Much of the core of the story revolves around the conflict between the Old Ways (the Redentori being those who wish to bring them back) and the Sudditi Fedeli della Signora (the Faithful Subjects of the Lady). The story brings us in at that crucial period when religions collide in a deathmatch, and people must either renounce their faith or hide it well, and that, in turn, fuels the greater conflict. It's pretty hard to read Fires of the Faithful and not see the religious aspects, but they help the story to flow, rather than dragging it down.
The other obvious aspect of the story is the resemblance to the feuding city-states of the Italian region of some centuries back. The names (Eliana, Mario, Cassio, Bella) alone are highly indicative of the book's influences, as are the names of the factions involved (the Redentori, the Fedeli). This is a period and place one doesn't see a lot of in fantasy, so it's certainly a nice change of pace. Also, the conflict between the Aramaic-derived Old Way (just check out the language the Old Way uses) and the Italian-inspired duotheism likewise conjures up images of the early days of Catholicism, when it was little more than a secret society conducting its worship in secret for fear of persecution.
Another strong undercurrent of theme revolves around magic and music, religion and music, magic and religion, intertwining the three to create a trinity of mysticism and belief. Eliana's talent with the violin led her to the Conservatory in the first place, and it gives her the power to effect changes later on. Also, we see how both Redentori and Fedeli use music, song and dance, in their respective ceremonies, and how one religion favors magic and the other seeks to abstain from it. To mix the three elements is to create an interesting blend that really brings life to the story's major conflicts.
In general, I greatly enjoyed this book. Eliana doesn't come off as all-knowing or perfect; she makes more than a few mistakes, and it's obvious that her troubles are just beginning. And as hard as it is to believe a sixteen-year-old girl can make the changes she does -- well, Jean d'Arc certainly managed to cause some upset in her time, right? I'm looking forward to Turning the Storm, which reportedly concludes this particular story. And then we'll have a much better idea of how well Kritzer has thought this through. (Two books. I wonder if she wrote one very large book, and her publishers kindly made her break it in half to make it manageable. That seems likely.) Thus, I recommend this book, with only a few hesitations: it does end on a slightly abrupt note, with quite a lot left to be resolved in the sequel, and I don't feel we've gotten enough of the story to truly judge it yet. The religious conflict at the heart of the story is, as I've said, fairly obvious, which can either be a strength or a weakness, depending on how you feel about such a thing. Check this book out, though. For a first novel, it's rather strong, and the protagonist is certainly enjoyable and easy to sympathize with.