A woman appears out of nowhere, with no memory of who she is. She is bound to a task by a spell she cannot escape, as if she were a summoned demon (and perhaps she IS, she doesn’t know). The woman, even her name eluding her, makes her way on a perilous journey to obtain what is needed for a band of rebels to overthrow a tyranny. The woman remembers skills, certain very useful skills, even if things like her name and what she is elude her memory. She may not know who she is, but she can climb, travel through wilderness, and fight. Her story to find out what she is, who she is and what she was are intertwined with the quests she has been set, and later, undertakes on her own.
Cold-Forged Flame and Lightning in the Blood, Tor.com novellas, begin to tell the story of a summoned spirit, an Archon, an Archon who learns that her name, or at least part of it, is Ree.
Cold-Forged Flame sets our stage with a lot of the heavy lifting of the basic concepts of the fantasy world and Ree’s base nature. The world that Brennan presents is a fantasy world that feels and sounds a lot like our own. The names are all new, but there are echoes of a real world, and it all feels put together like a fantastic version of middle ages or renaissance era version of our own world. Technology is not modern or industrial, but there are mentions of things like guns, for instance. Ree herself as a summoned being is a sign of magic, and there are other hints of magic and its use in this world, but in the main it is a relatively low magic secondary world setting.
Cold-Forged Flame, then, plays out as an action story wrapped in a mystery — just who and what IS Ree? What she’s been sent to do by her summoners is as mythic and foreign and strange as she herself is, especially as they have kept her ignorant of her nature, something for herself to puzzle out. There is definitely a metaphor here for soldiers put into situations without sufficient knowledge. The end game is both poetic and wrenching, given the nature of the choice and bargain that Ree eventually makes at the summit of their goal.
Lightning in the Blood picks up Ree’s story, years later. The bargain she made in Cold Forged Flame, for herself and for Aadet, has resulted in the revolution that Aadet always wanted, and a new regime in place for his country of Solaike. The bargain has also affected Ree in a number of ways, and the question of where she originally came from and who she was is the central mystery that haunts Ree’s incomplete memories. It is as she explores the terrain around Solaike that a chance encounter with a group of refugees provides an opportunity for Ree to learn more about who and what she was.
It is in this second volume of the series that the series title, Varekai, finally starts to make sense, showing the patient worldbuilding and revealing of that worldbuilding that the author is bringing to Ree’s story. Brennan patiently allows her heroine and the reader to discover more about her past, her people and her origins, while introducing new concepts about Archons, and Ree in particular. Once again, though, the main throughline of the plot ties into personal revelations that Ree makes about herself. As she undertakes her task, she discovers more about and around herself, character worldbuilding braided with the worldbuilding and braided with the plot. There are some fascinating ideas that Brennan explores here, especially how the government of Solaike is arranged, on a personal level, and some more of the myth and legend of her world are revealed.
Both novellas are a tight third-person point of view on Ree, and that focus gives us a Ree-infused look at the world and the characters around her. With all of that headspace, we really get to know her, feel her as an often frustrated, put upon Archon who is just trying to find her way in the world. In the second novella, we do get a from-the-inside character breakdown and better understanding of her own nature and why she acts the way she does. Once again, the author spools out the worldbuilding in a patient, careful fashion, leading the reader, in this case, deeper into the mystery of who and what Ree was, is, and perhaps what she *can be*.
Bringing Brennan’s powers of worldbuilding, character development, and interest in myth, legend and story to the table, the Varekai novellas are an excellent read, and a great way to introduce yourself to Brennan’s fictional work. Given the revelations in the second volume, and the path Ree sets out on at its conclusion, I am most interested in reading more novellas set in this world and with her as focus.