The Hand Of Fire, by Roland O’Leary—The Essence Of Magic

Although The Hand Of Fire was already eliminated from the SPFBO 7 contest by Before We Go Blog, I was encouraged to read it to see what our local competition was like.

The Hand Of Fire starts off much like The Game Of Thrones, with a ton of exposition in the form of political discussions and war planning. After just a few pages, I realized that this book had a serious case of Proper Noun Poisoning.

But I pushed through. I was committed to finishing this one.

Was it worth the effort? Read on to find out!

Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off

SPFBO is a huge competition between three hundred indie fantasy books. Each of these books is assigned to one of ten fantasy book review blogs.

Unfortunately, TheShortStoryTeller is not one of the official review blogs. Regardless, we still wanted to provide these authors with some additional visibility (and accountability) with our detailed book reviews.

For The Hand Of Fire, I was committed to reading the entire book. As with previous reviews, I evaluated it in four categories:

  • Background & Exposition (Check out our fantasy reading philosophy here.)

  • Characters

  • Plot

  • Writing Style

Story Summary (No Spoilers)

An alliance of tribes united under the Halyas clan is under attack from a monstrous race, and the Halyas family finds themselves displaced from their homelands as one of their more powerful allies turns against them.

This new enemy also controls powerful dark magics, and the elder teenage son of the Halyas clan must grow into his new roles and responsibilities as clan leader while learning everything he can about sorcery from his mage mentor.

Background & Exposition

Fantasy fiction is unique for how it creates new, imaginative backgrounds, and truly great fantasy authors know how to deliver that background to readers.

The Hand Of Fire is an ambitious novel with an epic scope. Simply from the sheer volume of proper nouns in the first few chapters, the reader can quickly discern that a lot of worldbuilding has gone into this series.

So first: the magic.

I’m a firm believer in Sanderson’s Three Laws of Magic. And I don’t know if I’ve ever read a book before this one that could benefit so clearly from understanding those laws.

The wizard character, Adromor, is so powerful that he can literally resolve any conflict in the novel with his unexplained magic. The author tries to describe the ‘Essence’ behind the magic, but the magical lectures are under-developed and lacking.

This magic system has promise, but the story could really benefit from helping the readers understand the limits of the magic, and also allowing non-magical resolutions to some of the conflicts. At several points in the book, battles and entire armies are proven useless if one side has an accomplished sorcerer.

But the author also introduces some other fantastic elements that show much more promise. Toward the end of the book, a demi-god pops up out of the ocean depths. In the middle of the book, we discover an ancient race and their magically-protective tree groves.

I’m looking forward to learning more about these elements, and much more.


Another blog reviewed this book and suggested that it’s very similar to a coming-of-age story, and I tend to agree with this assessment.

The main character, Danalar, is the eldest son of the Halyas clan, and after his father’s capture by a monstrous army, he must step up and step into his new role as clan leader.

Guided by his diplomatic mother, his militant uncle, and a wise wizard, Danalar must forge alliances with other clans, preserve his own childhood friendships, and protect his family and their legacy.

Throughout the book, I felt that the characters mostly acted in a reasonable fashion, and the dialogue was enjoyable to read. The character relationships were also consistent and believable.

The Plot

While reading this book, I coined a new term to describe a certain kind of fantasy subgenre: Travel Fantasy.

Travel Fantasy is a subgenre where the characters move from place to place, and the plot is rarely advanced in any significant way at any of those locations.

This is usually something an author does when he wants to showcase his world-building, and he doesn’t have enough plot or character development to fill his pages.

In The Hand Of Fire, we follow Danalar to several cities. We also sometimes cut to his father, Tamurac, as he is transported in a slave caravan through several locations. But the problem is, nothing really happens in these places to advance the plot or develop the characters.

Writing Style

Aside from a few circumstances where the author uses filter words (felt, thought, believed) that decrease reader immersion, I thought his writing style was perfectly acceptable.

There were way too many proper nouns. There’s no way to sugar-coat this. I was utterly lost every time a new character was introduced, or a new clan, or a new city, or a new foreign word. This can be partially solved if the author builds an X-Ray feature for his Amazon e-book, and I’m hoping that he will take this suggestion to heart.

On a much more positive note, I found the author’s use of vocabulary really refreshing and challenging. He really made an effort to find the perfect word for each situation, and rarely repeated these words.

There were a few anachronisms, or ‘anaculturalisms,’ but that’s nothing that I have the right to criticize. Sparrow, the Anachronist, is certainly guilty of those as well.

Conclusion: Too Ambitious For A Single Volume

Reading the official SPFBO review of The Hand Of Fire, I tend to agree with the reviewer’s analysis.

This book seems like it’s sole purpose is to set up a grand, sweeping series of epic proportions. Monsters, magic, gods, vampires, political rivalries, and more characters and places than any reader could ever be expected to keep straight.

And it’s hard to invest in a first-in-series novel that promises so much but fulfills so little. Especially when you get to the ending and realize that we haven’t really accomplished much, other than travelling from place to place and fighting some random monsters.

I think this book will certainly be worth a re-visit after the sequel gets published, and I hope the author will focus on some of the more intriguing elements that he hinted at in this first book.

Are you following the SPFBO7 contest? Have you read The Hand Of Fire, or any of the other entries? Drop a comment and let us know what we should read next!

And of course, check out our own contender, Stranger Back Home!






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