Rosaria Munda’s Flamefall is the second book in a fantasy young adult series in conversation with ancient texts. The first book, Fireborne, draws on Plato’s Republic and Virgil’s Aeneid. Flamefall, the follow up published this year, takes inspiration from Homer’s Iliad and Sophocles’ Antigone. In addition to the ancient influences, which Munda mentions explicitly in author’s notes at the end of each book, both novels seem inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution.
Fireborne is set in Callipolis (meaning ‘the good city’ in Greek, also the name of Plato’s ideal just city). Munda’s Callipolis is a 10-year-old island state that was born out of a violent revolution against a corrupt monarchic/aristocratic system, called Pythos, that ruled by fear and violence. Two first person perspectives narrate events, those of Antigone (‘Annie’) and Lee. Under the old regime, Annie was and could only ever be a ‘peasant’ while Lee, a son in a ruling family, was groomed to lead. Under Callipolis’ new regime, children are tested, and the results determine their further education and future profession.
Fireborne felt primarily like a thought-experiment about the efficacy of Plato’s Republic and the ideals of ‘people’s’ revolutions, exploring provocative questions like: How far can we take dispassionate reason before it becomes inhumane? To what extent can we avoid elitism of one sort or another? Who deserves our loyalty and why? Why does power corrupt, and to what extent is it possible to mitigate its effects?
In Flamefall, as in the Iliad, two wars rage simultaneously: an external one between Callipolis and New Pythos and an internal one between Callipolis’ governing body and rebels critical of its decisions. To provide narrative insight, Munda introduces a third perspective, that of Griff, a ‘serf’ in New Pythos, a neighboring island that surviving members of the Pythian regime colonized and subjugated, post-revolution.
Both Fireborne and Flamefall start off slowly, only picking up speed in the final quarter. The discussions in Fireborne were thought-provoking and engaging enough to compensate for pacing issues. This was not the case with Flamefall. My primary issue was with the third perspective, which results in the novel falling rather baldly into a good vs. evil binarism. As mentioned, Flamefall’s plot is inspired by the Iliad, but in the Iliad, the war between the Trojans and Achaeans is not portrayed as good side vs. evil side. Both sides behave badly or offend the gods at some point, in some way. We might be more and less sympathetic with one side over the other, but the poem continually challenges us to question those feelings, to see nobility on both sides, and to feel empathy for both sides. Not so in Flamefall, whose New Pythos felt like a Soviet caricature worthy of Mikhail Sholokhov.
I felt this most acutely with Griff’s ‘lord,’ Ixion, a sadist who delights in domination and humiliation. Choosing to portray him in this way felt like an easy way to weight the discussion against New Pythos while side-stepping more challenging systemic questions about paternalism, elitism, exploitation, and, perhaps most troubling, apologias for violence. I especially would have liked Munda to engage with the complex dynamics around bad/good individuals and behaviors and bad/good institutions and systems. For example, it is sometimes the case that good people prop up bad systems, or bad people exploit good systems, or good systems mitigate the effects of bad people, or good people mitigate the effects of bad systems. And so on.
The novel seems to operate on the premise that New Pythos is fundamentally evil/irredeemable because it is monarchic/aristocratic while Callipolis is fundamentally good/redeemable because because it is anti-Pythos. It seems we are meant to feel a revolutionary thrill at the idea of the People’s Assembly and a certain pride in the Red Month. And if things go too far sometimes, and a few naughty people get slaughtered, well, exuberance happens. Even when it is making the same mistakes as Pythos, Callipolis is understood to be the ‘good’ city, capable of evolving into a better system, while New Pythos is not. The message seems to be that what’s important is knowing who your enemies are, and annihilating those enemies. I recognize that life would be easier if everything were reducible to mutually exclusive binaries— good/evil, redeemable/irredeemable. I sympathize with the desire for the clarity such binaries bestow, but I distrust their absolutism.
Given how much I enjoyed the discussions in Fireborne, I was surprised by Flamefall’s naïveté and disappointed by its monotone. I hope that I’m being too harsh, that it’s somehow setting up a surprise twist in the third book and not what it seems, which is like Bolshevik Revolution fan fiction.
Have you read either or both of the books in this series? If so, what are your thoughts?