Review: A Fire Under the Skin Trilogy

I was recently followed by comic book writer and novelist Victor Gischler on Twitter, and it turned out his fantasy trilogy A Fire Under the Skin was on ridiculous sale (I got all three of them for, like, $4).  The story centers around Rina Veraiin, the daughter of the Duke of Klaar, a cold and distant duchy in the kingdom of Helva.  When the duchy is overrun by foreign invaders, the Perannese (with the help of an inside traitor) and her parents are killed, Rina is spirited away from the castle and the only life she’s ever known.  On the run, she is sent to a wizard living up a mountain and given the Prime, a tattoo that runs down her back and allows her access to all sorts of magical power.  From there, Rina must seek out new tattoos to increase her powers and new allies to support her in her efforts to retake her home.

The first book, Ink Mage, focuses on that quest.  Rina makes bargains with unlikely allies, including a boozy womanizer named Brasley (the son of a local minor nobleman) and a stable boy named Alem.  Together, they find more tattoos and return to Klaar changed and ready to fight.

The second book, The Tattooed Duchess, sort of gives away the ending of the first book.  Rina and her companions were successful in their battle to retake Klaar, and things have changed for them.  Rina is now the Duchess of Klaar, facing new challenges and seeking new tattoos.  Rumblings of some greater threat are felt, and Rina must decide what is important to her and who she wants to be.

The final book of the trilogy, A Painted Goddess, finds Rina and her allies facing a full-scale invasion, the total power of the Perannese Empire, threatening to overrun the kingdom of Helva.  and Rina is forced to confront her own desire for the power of the tattoos and the fate of the kingdom.  It doesn’t help that something is killing the kingdom’s gods one by one, and Rina and her allies are somehow tied up in that business as well.

The first two books in the series were originally serialized on the Kindle, released as “Episodes” every so often.  If the books didn’t have a page labeling the beginning of each new episode, though, you’d be hard-pressed to recognize where one ended and another began.

The characters are not always easy to love.  Rina especially makes some hard, questionable choices, most often in regards to the tattoos and her pursuit of their power.  Alem seems to lack much agency, bouncing between a love for Rina and for another character, the gypsy and ink mage Mauziran.  There’s also a group of former prostitutes turned warriors, the Birds of Prey, who were consistently my favorite characters in the books.  Most of them didn’t have much “screen time,” as it were, but they were a constant presence, and it was nice to see them making their own choices and not needing rescue all the time.  I will say, while its nice that the women have plenty of agency of their own, and do most of the rescuing, Alem in particular didn’t seem to have much to recommend him beyond a pretty face and some sexual prowess.  Brasley at least

That brings me to another point.  There’s some fairly explicit sex stuff in the book.  Not really a big deal (there’s also a fair amount of cursing and bloody dismemberment, so your feelings on that sort of stuff will determine how appealing you find the book), if you’re expecting it.

Honestly, my biggest issue with the books – and this is consistent across all three novels – is that their endings feel rushed.  There’s a massive amount of build up in each novel, stage setting with armies and rival ink mages and even a god killer, and each time the enemy is dispatched in the matter of a few pages.  It just feels very abrupt, after the solid pacing of the rest of each novel.  The endings aren’t bad, per se, just rushed.

Overall, A Fire Under the Skin is a solid series.  The characters are enjoyably flawed, the magic system is pretty nifty, and the world is diverse and well-realized.  Despite abrupt endings, the books are generally well-paced and quick reads.  They’re adventure stories for adults, and they revel in that.  Definitely recommended.

If you’re interested in the trilogy, you can buy it here.

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