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Courtesy of Greenwillow Books

October 9, 2018

Family Is Everything in For a Muse of Fire

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Heidi Heilig’s new book, For a Muse of Fire pulls the reader into a vibrant, lush world inspired by Asian cultures and French colonialism. The story follows Jetta Chantray, a young Chakran shadow player of the Ros Nai troupe, as she and her family strive to win passage to Aquitan, the home of the Aquitan emperor and a spring rumored to cure madness. But Jetta’s malheur, her madness, is only one of the secrets she keeps. Jetta has the ability to slip souls into new skins, and in a world still haunted by the brutality of the mad nécromancien Le Trépas, the old ways have been abolished, punishable by death or worse.

Heilig weaves a complex tale, balancing the powers of colonization, rebellion and a family caught in between. The  novel revolves around the Chantrays and the LeGardes and their intersections drive the events of the novel. Family relations and their functions have literal power: Blood is how Jetta binds spirits to their new cloth bodies, and in the same way, blood connects, forms and informs the characters through family relations, but the novel also reminds us that it doesn’t have to. Blood and the power it has is ultimately the result of a choice.

In structure, the novel mixes prose, song, letters, telegrams and play writing, a technique that calls attention to its own construction. The opening lines hearken back to Shakespeare’s Henry V, but the similarities largely end there. What does remain is a consciousness of performance. As a shadow player, Jetta performs for an audience behind a silk screen, masquerading her abilities as nothing more than the magic of theater. But just as she performs for an audience, so do many of the characters in the novel. Rebellion, colonization — these are acts, performances, of their own. Each side perpetuates an image of itself and of the other, branding evil and good when in reality, the truth is far more complex.

As the structure shifts, however, the characters provide a narrative focus. Primarily narrated from the point of view of Jetta, the reader sees the world through her eyes, and this world is a beautiful one. In Jetta’s eyes, the dead do not disappear forever. They linger, luminescent, waiting to be reborn into new skins. As a character, Jetta is determined to help her family. Her power enables them to become the most famous shadow players in Chakrana, but she struggles with concealing both it, along with her malheur. Jetta is bipolar, prone to manic and depressive episodes, a reality that the novel does not shy away from. She constantly wonders how much she can trust her own judgement, unsure of where the impulse is coming from, but this is just another part of her character, not overblown or exaggerated.

As a whole, the novel is immersive in scope, presenting a highly detailed world. The characters are well-rounded and engaging: each has secrets and surprising connections. The twists are predictable but satisfying as more and more links are revealed between characters and they begin to come together on the page. The true strength in the novel, however, is simply the power of family. Where many Y.A. novels show distant, abusive or deceased parents, For a Muse of Fire takes a different path. Family is everything; they support each other, care for each other and accept each other. Jetta takes most risks for her family, and she — and the story — are stronger for it.

Jessica Lussier is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at jll335@cornell.edu.