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For a Muse of Fire

October 7, 2020

In For a Muse of Fire, by Heidi Heilig, Jetta, the teenaged daughter of a family of traveling puppeteers, has a special power, but it is forbidden and must be kept secret. She thinks “who would look at me and guess what I could do? I am no tattooed monk, no necromancien.…” She calls what she can do her “malheur” but what it is is clearly necromancy; she binds the spirits of the dead with blood to puppets she calls “fantouches.” The blood is “what binds them to their new skins, what makes them obey.” Jetta makes them dance at will.

Jetta’s power developed after a “brush with death,” and she thinks it’s because she has “come close enough to death that I could lead the way there and back.”

The action of the novel is set in Chakrana and Aquitan, fantasy versions of southeast Asian countries who have forbidden the use of necromancy and other kinds of magic. At first, Jetta’s necromancy seems harmless—when she binds the spirit of a kitten to one of her puppets she says that “after the show, I’ll burn the paper to set her free. Then she can fade after three days and find rebirth like any normal soul.” But we know that necromancy always has unintended consequences.

Jetta soon finds herself with a knife held at her throat and calls to the spirits of the dead to attack the man who holds her. He “screams as he stumbles back, convulsing….His eyes roll, his body writhes, his head lolls like a mad thing. Then it ends, and the soldier drops in a heap.” Later, when defending her own life and that of her family and a friend, Jetta is again captured by an enemy and tells him “let go of me….I’ll kill you if you don’t.” When he laughs and asks “with what?” Jetta thinks “my blood and bare hands…the souls of the dead and the damned.” But she remembers the unpleasantness of killing the first man with necromancy and strangles this one with a rope instead.

We find out Jetta’s mother knows that the bad guys use necromancy as “a perversion….they use the power to give life to take new bodies for their own twisted souls” and Jetta meets a man called Le Trepas who “put himself into a body like I put souls into fantouche.” Nothing worse than a necromancer except a more dedicated necromancer who uses his power for his own gain.

The comparison is made explicit when Jetta is asked which is more dangerous, Le Trepas or her malheur and she thinks “the answer should be easy. The killer of children, the stealer of souls, the necromancien who terrorizes the country even now, behind the walls of his prison. But what about my actions on the ship—the servant I’d threatened, my certainty that I alone could stop a dozen rebels?” Clearly Jetta is struggling to see herself as the more ethical necromancer. She is also looking for a cure for her malheur.

The novelist tries to persuade readers that necromancy can be ethical, with images of Jetta helping the good rebels with necromantic messenger pigeons and the revelation of Jetta’s interpretation of what the dead think and feel: “Pressing my thumb to the wound on my finger, I gaze at the bright spirits around me—dancing, glowing, lighting the night. All the burning longing of the dead to live again.” We only have Jetta’s word for it, though, that they want to live again.

Finally Jetta’s long-lost brother is found and then dies, and she feels that she must bring him back to life, as she says “I can’t bear to watch him go. And before I can think better of it, I drop to my knees beside his prone form and trace the symbol of life on his skin. His soul hesitates, as though ready to refuse the offering—but the pull is irresistible.”

Jetta defeats Le Trepas and afterwards finds the cure but doesn’t take it, as she can’t imagine “what would life be like without my malheur?” So in the end the characters are left at her mercy, the only necromancer left alive.

You can guess that I’m skeptical about the idea of an ethical necromancer, so any charm in the story of how Jetta grows up to become a strong and principled wielder of power was lost on me. I didn’t even see Jetta as principled, since she gives in to the most stereotypical temptation of all, the urge to bring a loved one back to life.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. October 7, 2020 3:10 am

    Sounds like a cute idea – necromancing puppeteers. And I can’t remember a coming of age of a necromancer. They are usually the villains. I’m intrigued.

    • October 11, 2020 3:40 pm

      Yes, it is cute, in some ways. I think my habitually stern attitude towards making one of these villains into a heroine might be interfering with my enjoyment of the overturned tropes.

  2. October 7, 2020 7:54 am

    I liked this more than you, I think, and I liked the sequel a lot as well, for whatever that’s worth. I’m trying to decide how I feel about the idea of an ethical necromancer — it is of course selfish to bring back a loved one but I guess I continue to find it interesting, despite its being an old trope. Plus it does sometimes feel like the insistence that you can never bring a loved one back to life successfully or with good consequences is just DEATH PROPAGANDA and SOUR GRAPES because we cannot, in fact, conquer death.

    • October 11, 2020 3:42 pm

      Death propaganda, huh? As if Death is someone interested in solidifying his position of power over mortals? Well, yeah, can’t argue with you about that.

  3. October 7, 2020 4:55 pm

    it’s an intriguing premise, ethical necromancy. Not sure myself. It comes down to whether the dead has a choice in the matter and what the consequences of the choice are. Props to the author for giving it a go!

    • October 11, 2020 3:42 pm

      I prefer my “ethical” necromancy with a large side helping of comedy. When it’s taken seriously it’s so…bleak.

  4. October 7, 2020 9:36 pm

    Ok! Now, this is a fascinatingly unique form of necromancy! Part of me can’t help thinking of the Sock Opera episode of Gravity Falls 😄 … but even without that delightful association, I’m adding this to my library app’s wishlist just based on your first two paragraphs!

    • October 11, 2020 3:45 pm

      I hope you’ll like it! A Sock Opera is really taking the idea of sock puppets to a possibly higher and definitely more ludicrous level.

      • October 11, 2020 6:58 pm

        It is, indeed! Gravity Falls is a very feel-good show when you’re in the mood for a healthy dose of absurdity.

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