Katharine Eliska Kimbriel’s HIDDEN FIRES is the third book of her Chronicles of Nuala to be reviewed here at Shiny Book Review, but is the second book in the series in chronological sequence, following FIRES OF NUALA (FIRE SANCTUARY was the first book written and sold). As it is the second book in sequence with FIRES OF NUALA, many of the same characters appear as in the previous novel, including Sheel Atare, his wife, Darame, his sister, Avis (the Ragäree, both a powerful politician and a huge symbol of fertility for both the Atare family and Nuala as a whole), and many more. As with FIRES OF NUALA, there’s a complex plot, a goodly amount of realistic romance, and worldbuilding that is second to none, along with a great deal of storytelling that, put simply, drew me right in and never let me go.
New to HIDDEN FIRES is Garth Kristinsson, the son of free-traders. He has a past connection to the woman he knows as “Silver” — Darame — and he’s bent on finding her. However, he doesn’t know she’s gone to Nuala, much less that she’s now a member of the Nualan aristocracy — he only knows her as a former free-trader of considerable acumen, and someone who may know exactly why Garth’s father was murdered.
As with FIRE SANCTUARY, we see Garth’s slow transition to Nuala and the difficulties he endures, particularly with regards to the irradiated food (Nuala has some severe problems with radiation, which has caused systemic problems with fertility and many, many other issues). The main thing to consider is that unlike in FIRE SANCTUARY, or even in FIRES OF NUALA, Garth the reluctant, possible immigrant is not taken in hand by the honest, ethical and forthright Atare family — instead, he’s taken in hand by Lucy, a scion of the diabolical Dielaan family. Lucy’s interest in Garth is two-fold: One, Garth is an off-worlder, so his genes have not been compromised by radiation and should be able to give her at least one healthy child if all goes well. And two, because Garth is an off-worlder with an enigmatic connection to Darame Atarae (meaning, the wife of the Atare), perhaps Garth can be used by the Dielaan.
However, what Garth really doesn’t understand is that there’s a power struggle going on with the Dielaaners. Rex Dielaan, the next head of the family, is twenty-one, hot-blooded, and impatient. All of that could be worked around by his mother, Livia (the Ragäree of Dielaan, an ethical, though ruthless, woman). But the fact that Rex is both xenophobic and psychotic is something that gives her great pause.
Unfortunately for all concerned, Lucy either does not realize Rex is crazy, or she’s willing to go along with him. Yet she’s drawn to Garth, and really wants to be with him . . . which way will Lucy turn when the worst happens? (Further reviewer sayeth not, at least not about this.)
Getting back to the Sheel/Darame arc, Sheel has grown into his role as both Atare and healer. He’s been aided in this by Darame, who as a former free-trader (think: consummate con artist, who only cons other con artists) is skilled at sniffing out scams and is nearly as skilled dealing with various forms of political intrigue. They now have three children who will never rule due to the peculiar inheritance laws of Nuala (the next ruler will be one of Avis’s sons, which is part of why the Ragäree is so important), but of course Darame wants them to grow up to be strong, intelligent, capable, and ethical — what every good parent wants for his/her child, in short.
Sheel and Darame, surprisingly enough, are very good friends with Livia, the Ragäree of Dielaan. They’re aware of at least some of Rex’s problems, mostly because Livia’s second son, Quin, has ended up with many of Rex’s duties due to Rex not wanting to be bothered. As noblesse oblige is a very big part of the Nualan aristocracy (even though it’s not called that), this has not set well with Livia, Sheel or Darame because a poor ruler can do a great deal of harm without even trying.
And, of course, Rex is trying his best to live up to the worst aspects of the Dielaan family, which may plunge all of Nuala into a war. (Thus ends the plot summary, or I’ll give far too much away.)
Look. This is a book that you really need to read if you love science fiction, romance, or any blend of the two. It’s complex, engrossing, honest, surprising, intelligent in how it deals with the problems of a completely different world with its own history and nuances, even more intelligent when it deals with the problems unwitting potential immigrants face on Nuala, and contains two realistic and root-worthy romances in the continuing, enduring love between Darame and Sheel, and the newfound romance between Garth and Lucy.
If there is a flaw here, it’s that Garth’s character seems remarkably naïve. There were times I just wanted to shake him, because he obviously didn’t know what he was getting into, and Lucy’s oblique hints just weren’t helping. Yet Garth being young and impulsive enough to have followed Darame’s trail for a hundred subjective years (most of that spent in cryogenic freeze/sleep) is an important plot point, and I’m not sure if there was another way to get this point across. (Really, an older, wiser man would’ve given up long ago and never ended up on Nuala at all.)
I also was a bit annoyed by Lucy. She was smart, well-educated, ethical in her fashion and honest, but she couldn’t seem to figure out that Rex was flat-out crazy until way too close to the end to suit me. (I’m dancing around the spoilers, folks. All apologies if I’ve unwittingly given something away.) She truly cared about Garth. She wanted the two of them to have a future. But she couldn’t see a way through to that future, and was so inarticulate about it that it took a miracle of subtext by Ms. Kimbriel to get this fact across — a very neat authorial thing to do, and something for which I applaud Ms. Kimbriel.
While I enjoyed HIDDEN FIRES a great deal and found it a worthy companion to the two other novels comprising the Chronicles of Nuala, I adjudged it just short of a full “A” mark. So the grades stand as follows:
HIDDEN FIRES: A-minus. (Solid, smart, entertaining, intelligent, and two good romances. What more could you want, save a bit more life out of Lucy and a bit less naïveté from Garth?)
For the Chronicles of Nuala as a whole: A.
— reviewed by Barb