SPFBO Review: The Door Into Fire by Diane Duane

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This one was the interesting book in my pile, and so I let it sit a bit, not too sure what I was going to find.

Here I go!

Herewiss is the only man in centuries to possess the Power of the blue Flame, but he can’t use or control it — not even to help his dearest friend, Freelorn, exiled prince of Arlen. Herewiss does have a talent for more mundane sorcery, and (aided by the unearthly creature Sunspark) he uses it to rout the armies besieging Freelorn. But now Herewiss faces a devastating choice.

His time to master the blue Fire is running out. Should he join Freelorn in his fight to regain his kingdom? Or should he seek out the ancient keep in the Waste where doors lead into other worlds — perhaps even the door whose use will teach him to control the Power that he must master or die?

“You really do like that shape, don’t you.”

The elemental curved its neck, looked around to admire its shining self. (It has a certain elegance, I must admit—)

“You’re vain, firechild, vain.”

So, this is that book. So I’ve had a few people voice the question of whether this book is eligible, given its history of traditional publication. Well, it is. It ended up in my hands, so it must be. But still, I had people show concern. Would I be making a statement about traditionally published books vs self published books if I gave it a good score?! Or if I gave it a bad score?!?!

So, before I even get into this, let me address this. I read a lot of books. Both traditionally published and self published by authors of all types. I hold them to the same standard, and I always have. I don’t care if it’s written by someone I’ve never heard of, someone I’m vaguely aware of on twitter, someone I converse with fairly regularly, my mom, or a lady whose YA books I read back in the 80s when I was like 8 and forgot about until I was looking her up on Goodreads to write this. I review based on enjoyment, and I enjoy all kinds of books in different ways and with differing enthusiasm.

So let’s assume that this is a currently self published book in a self published book contest, but most importantly, for all intents and purposes right now, a book that I had never heard of before, that I’ve never read, that I get to read now, and then tell you what I thought of it. Okay? Okay. Good talk. Glad we did this. Moving along.


This is the story of Herewiss, who is a sorcerer. He’s the first man in centuries to have the power of The Flame, which is a special type of magic that usually only women can wield. He can’t use it and hasn’t found the focus to control it, but he knows it’s there. Women use wooden rods as focuses, but Herewiss figures his focus could be a sword, so he becomes a smith, and he forges swords, hoping to make the perfect one, but he breaks every one of them.

One day, he’s minding his own business when he gets a message from Freelorn, the exiled Prince of the kingdom of Arlen, and Herewiss’ “dearest friend” as the blurb puts it. The note says Lorn is under siege, and to please, pretty please get him the hell out of there.

And so Herewiss jumps into action, immediately going on a solo quest to save his friend. But… his quest comes to a fork in the road once he and Lorn meet up again, and he must choose: help Freelorn regain his Kingship, or learn to master this rare and deadly power of his before it fizzles out forever. Dun Dun Dunnnnn.

This is a fairly straightforward fantasy, in terms of the main plot. Sorcerer goes on a quest to unlock his potential, outlaw king must take back his rightful place, probably because his bloodline protects the land from something Evil or because the person who usurped his place is a giant tool, and so on and so forth. What made it really unique to me, especially compared to other books that were around in its heyday… Herewiss and Freelorn are lovers. This isn’t skirted or played down either, except in the blurb. Herewiss actually full-on explains same sex relationships to a talking elemental horse at one point (which was exactly as amazing as that just made it sound, lol). In this world, everyone, male or female, is religiously obligated to bear/produce one child at the time they come of age, and after that Responsibility (capital R) is fulfilled, they are free to love whomever they wish. There appears to be no stigma in this world at all regarding sexuality. Bisexuality seems to be the natural state for just about everyone. There is also no apparent tradition of monogamy outside of marriage either, as several of these characters have chosen to have more than one lover of any gender at any given time.

So, I wasn’t really expecting that in my classic fantasy, but there it is. I wish that I had read this one when I was much younger, like in the early 90s. Young me who was just coming to terms with girls being just as cute as boys would have loved a fantasy world where bisexuality is just part of the norm and not at all abnormal. 

Herewiss was an easy character to cheer for. He’s carefree and friendly a lot of the time. He is clever when he needs to get out of scrapes. He meets the aforementioned talking elemental horse along the way, who is in reality a fire elemental named Sunspark. He saves Sunspark from the rain, and in return, Spark travels with him until such a time that he can return the favor and save Herewiss’ life.

Now Herewiss began for the first time to understand what an elemental was. This was one note of the song the Goddess sang at the beginning, when She was young and did not know about the great Death. One pure unbearable note of the song, a note to break the brain open through the ears and the burnt eyes—a chained potency looking for a place to happen, a spark of the Sun indeed, whose only purpose was to burn itself out, recklessly, gloriously.

The prose was oftentimes lovely, and the book flowed well. This was quite a quick read, and I started it one morning at work only to find myself at 20% or so before I knew it. It was never boring, though also not full to the brim of action. I like to occasionally jump into an older book or series. They remind me of the fantasy I read when I was young, which is an often pleasant nostalgic feeling. This one gave me that feeling as well at times…

…though, like many classic fantasy has been known to, at times it made my eyes roll hard. For example: the woman-who-is-probably-more-than-she-seems, who in this case is an “innkeeper”. Described as something like the most beautiful woman ever (of course), who completely randomly declares that despite the fact that they have money to pay, she’ll trade sex with one of the seven adventurers wishing to stay at her random middle-of-nowhere (very convenient) inn for rooms overnight for all of them. Our group of adventurers go on to draw straws for who gets to sleep with this gorgeous random woman, including Herewiss and his boyfriend, who are both rather disappointed when neither of them draw the short straw.

Uhhh, okay.

Of course there was a deeper purpose to this character than being the random beautiful innkeeper of the random inn in the middle of nowhere. She is there to give Herewiss an important magical item (it’s drugs, lol) to help with his quest. Also because love is beautiful and so on, et cetera. So, you see she’s an important random beautiful lady, in the grand scheme of things. She is there for reasons. Not the least of which being because this is a fantasy book from the 70s and there needs to be a beautiful woman present to be naked on the cover. THOSE ARE THE RULES.

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NO, I WASN’T KIDDING ABOUT THE RULES!

The last third or so of this book was… weird, to put it bluntly. Here are some highlights:

  • Herewiss and the fire elemental who does not understand love fall in love, and share themselves with each other. The elemental can change its shape to be a human male or human female (among other things). They try both, for science!
  • Herewiss takes a bunch of hallucinogens and has an out-of-body experience which he basically ends up using to watch his boyfriend bang someone else. He uses his drug-induced telepathy to read their minds and analyze their relationship while they’re at it.
  • Herewiss goes on another drug-induced dream vision quest, visits his dead brother in the afterlife for a chat, then goes back in time to witness his parents going at it, presumably before he was born. Comments on how in love they were somewhere around the time that his mom climaxes while he is still watching.

So, as you’ve likely picked up on, there is a lot of talk about love and the making thereof in this book, as a central theme is pretty much love and the sharing of oneself via it. There is a lot of sex in this book, and yet none of it is graphic or explicit, so for those adverse to explicit love scenes, this one doesn’t get in your face with it. It just got a little too odd for me in the latter half, and I’ll admit that it sort of soured the experience as a whole. I like sex in fantasy, and the idea of a world where there are very little boundaries in terms of love, but this one uses some very odd ideas at times to illustrate it and I found myself just rather disappointed when it got more weird than not. C’est la vie.

So, in the end, I think that I’d call this one a 6/10 stars. I’d recommend it to people into classic SFF. It’s tropey at times, while still being unique (at least, to me), and while it delves into the weird, it was still a quick, enjoyable read that I read in just short of 2 days. Unfortunately, I am going to cut it from the pile. Alas, it just wasn’t one of my favorites this year.

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