City of Blaze is the first book in The Fireblade Array series. It was published in 2011 and written by H.O. Charles. The story follows the main characters of Morghiad and Artemi as they deal with issues of prejudice, fear, allegiance, self-control and love.
The setting is the country of Calidell and it has all the usual facets of a fantasy world: slightly steampunk and medieval levels of technology, a preference for swords and undemocratic rule. Calidell’s king has outlawed wielders and banished them from the country; they are now a maligned section of society. Any that are discovered by teams of kanaala are executed immediately. It is also a country where war is actively encouraged, since the king believes that it serves to control the population. The capital city has descended into chaotic debauchery since its army has lost its purpose, and spends much of its time suffering nalka. The two main characters are Morghiad and Artemi, though a third primary is Silar. Morghiad is the son of the King of Calidell, kanaala and, at the opening of the book, has just been made captain of the country’s army. He is young but already cold and reserved due to the pressures of his responsibilities. He is also greatly fearful of becoming involved with women, since any liaison would likely result in the death of his partner and any daughters that are produced. He is also concerned that undergoing nalka would disrupt his dedication to his duties.
Artemi is both vanha-sielu and a wielder whose abilities are hidden. At the opening of the book she is already a famous warrior featuring in histories and children’s stories, but in this instance is too young to remember her previous lives. She is bold, expressive and quick-witted from the start, though naive. Morghiad discovers her in the castle, but is unable to submit her for execution. He almost immediately recognises her identity and instead plans to recruit her to his army. There are signs that he is attracted to her, but he expends considerable effort in both fighting and denying it. He successfully integrates her into Calidell’s forces, and together they alter the men’s attitudes to wielders. This is due, in part, to her character and the lengths to which Morghiad goes to protect her. They go to war, where Artemi is injured because of her conflicting loyalty and inability to follow orders. As an indirect result of her subsequent punishment she sent to be made concubine to the king, which would result in his death if consummated. Thus Morghiad is forced to make her his own concubine and maintain a charade of a relationship, placing them in a rather awkward situation. Up until this point he had warmed to her considerably, even beginning to smile and frown, but their new situation sends him into a regression of reserved-ness.
When Artemi tries to escape for a day, Morghiad tracks her down before admitting he is in love with her and she realises she cares for him, too. However, the couple’s desires are frustrated because she outranks him in terms of wielder ability. And so they commence their impotent affair. Silar, Morghiad’s closest friend and a lieutenant, is also in love with Artemi but aids them by securing her position as a pseudo ‘queen’ of the army. This inadvertently has the effect of re-moulding Calidell’s forces and gives them meaning once more. They go to war again, where Morghiad and Artemi finally give in to their lust. Artemi believes she has killed her lover and, through guilt, begins a series of attempts to reach her power alone, which she is still too young to do. Before she reaches it, Morghiad wakes up, apparently unharmed. It turns out that she has tied his mind to hers and as a result they now share many sensations and emotions. They go to battle, where Morghiad is stabbed and dragged away by the enemy. Fearing for him again, Artemi finds a way of using her power, and we get a glimpse of what the ‘old’ Artemi might have been like.
After the battle Morghiad discovers that he is not the son of King Acher of Calidell. He is, in fact, the only surviving son of Gialdin’s royal family. Gialdin was a small country, now subsumed into Calidell, but its name is often held as an idealised place full of idealised people. And so Morghiad discovers that he is captaining the very army which was responsible for killing his family and Artemi, in her previous life. Instead of wreaking his revenge upon them, he schemes to overthrow the king and place Artemi on the throne. Always conscious of doing the right thing, he intends to submit himself to a trial once he has killed the king, whilst leaving Artemi innocent (and ignorant) of the coup planning. In this instance, Silar’s knack for predicting people’s reactions becomes very useful.
Four years on, Morghiad’s plans are near to fruition. Artemi is close to remembering her past lives and the political stage is set for her to assume her new role. Their characters have both softened in certain aspects through each other’s influence. He is now utterly spellbound by her and she finds herself tamely following every command he issues, though their roles in public appear unchanged. Trouble comes when Artemi is discovered to be a wielder by an unknown kanaala, who turns out to be a mercenary employed by the king. The king, upon realising his adopted son had kept this from him, reacts by sending the mercenary to kill her. While she is alone and disabled by a flood of memories from her past life, the mercenary sets about his task by pulling the power out of her. Morghiad is immediately alerted by her pain and runs to her rescue, but is too late to save her. He dispatches the mercenary and then hunts the king down, before removing his head. The story ends with Morghiad slumping into the throne, with the implication that he will now have to assume the role of king alone.
The title is a counter-indicative description of the city of Cadra at the opening of the book, since it is one of the few cities in the world supposedly free of Blaze. However, by the end of the book this false supposition is realised and (partially through Morghiad's actions) it truly becomes a city of Blaze.
An important theme is the protrayal of feminism in a fantasy world. Artemi is the obvious alpha female lead who equals (and frequently surpasses) her male counterparts in terms of fighting ability. But Morghiad is also seen to pursue a feminist agenda as, in spite of his initial difficulty with women, he provides Artemi with numerous opportunities to excel and sees the potential for other women to do the same. Finally, the concept of wielders is a reaction against the passive role traditionally ascribed to women in sex and in power.
Self-control is also explored with the idea of nalka, although it rarely seems to dissuade sexual relationships or encourage celibacy in reality. This is an exploration of the idealised relationships conceived of by many human societies in the modern world: long-lasting and monogamous. Ultimately, even with biological re-enforcers for long-term relationships and limiters of promiscuity, several of the characters remain unable to achieve this ideal relationship.
Coming-of-age is a repeated element of the storytelling, with certain phenomena (e.g. nalka, wielding and memories) hinging on the concept of physical maturity. At times there is a conflict between this and emotional maturity, and Artemi is most often the character who must deal with this issue.
Blind loyalty and allegiance are other key themes of the book. Morghiad, Artemi and the army are invited to question their allegiances. However, in time the army develops unconditional loyalty to Artemi and this is reflected in the names of many of its soldiers, which derive from the names of moths (c.f. "moths to a flame"). The name 'Acher' may derive from Acherontia; the death's head moth.
It is possible that "the queen" (or Artemi) serves as a literary symbol of Morghiad and Silar's homosexual relationship.