Fantasy is one of the genres that a lot of people have issues with. The reasons for this may be the fantastical elements, the shattering of the suspension of disbelief that may occur when a farm boy can slay dragons or the mere fact that the desire of the heart displayed in the tale is difficult to relate to. The best, of any genre fiction, are the stories that create something new, something different. In some fantasy novels it can be a strong sense of reality like the books by Joe Abercrombie, a female hero who puts a common myths on its ear like Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon or it may, while still using the genre specific tropes and themes, place the setting in an inventive area like Beaulieu’s Twelve Kings or Lays of Anuskaya, and that is what Will Panzo does in the Burning Isle.
The spellcaster Cassius shows up on the island of Scipio, a hotbed, described as a slum, of criminal activity mostly due to the fact that the inhabitants are unable to live in other parts of the Republic. The council that is supposed to run the island are more or less for show as the power is divided by the gang leaders Piso and Cinna. They, themselves are at war for the ultimate power of the island. Cassius is unknown when he comes to Scipio, having spent years in training at another island. He displays great power of the runes, that spellcasters control through gauntlets, the magical source in this world when he manages to kill a man during a prizefight. This catches the eye of Piso and they form a relationship wherein Cassius begins doing jobs for the mobster. It becomes more and more clear that Cassius has more plans than just running errands and he begins to stir the pot by doing jobs for Cinna as well. The violence begins to escalate until it surely must boil over.
There are a lot of things to enjoy in Panzo’s tale of treason and conflict in the underworld. Firstly he places the story in the new setting of a sort of Roman world, complete with words and classifications used during that era and when one initially reads the book it easy to believe that it’s a historic fiction. It creates a link between the reader and the author as a lot of the terms and concepts are easily recognizable and most everyone has an image of Rome and the people therein. Panzo’s language is also sharp and would appeal to a great spectrum of readers and not much is lost between sender and receiver among the pages. The plot in itself is simple enough, yet the actual goal of the protagonist is not revealed until half way through the story and this is good, although the first half reads like a sandbox type of game in the vein of Skyrim or Grand Theft Auto. This does get tiresome at times as it feels like Cassius only moves from place to place aimlessly, but as it advances his agenda and reasons become clear, and this is done in a very clever way. Though the Republic as such is never really revealed the history of Scipio is dealt with and the reader is privy to the background of the gangs on the island. Scipio, home to those rejected by society on other islands, becomes a representation of nations today where the government is no more than a faceless puppet and those who actually rule threaten to tear it apart due to their own petty personalities and egos. Cassius becomes a kind of vigilante in the den of corruption and violence, a representative of the people, the anti hero reminiscent of the old hard boiled detective of yore. As such he isn’t all powerful, he may be a great spellcaster, but he is often injured or hurt and this way he retains his humanity and Panzo manages to keep the suspension of disbelief intact.
There is so much that is good in The Burning Isle, from its language, to its setting and to the character development. We recognize the tropes, the people, the intrigue and the setting, but from different places. It’s all so familiar, yet we have seldom witnessed it in this constellation and that is what makes it unique and a great read.