Book Review: Chasing Embers by James Bennett
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Series: Book 1 of Ben Garston
Publisher: Orbit (September 6, 2016)
Length: 464 pages
Chasing Embers is an urban fantasy that seems to have a little bit of everything. There are dragons, magical spirits and mages, the Fae, and even a generous helping of ancient Egyptian mythology. The strange thing is though, even with so much going on in this novel, I actually find myself with very little to say about it. The story was a fun romp, but I enjoyed it on a very “surface” level without forming many deep attachments to its people, places, or events. That said, being the first book of a series, it has strong potential and room to grow.
The story stars Ben Garston, who’s no ordinary UF hero. For one thing, he is a dragon (which I don’t think is a spoiler, since it’s revealed almost right off the bat, not to mention it is blatantly hinted at in the synopsis and on the cover). Centuries old, “Red Ben” now walks the streets in human form, bound by a pact that was made long ago between all the magical creatures of the world. To prevent widespread chaos and fear, Ben and others like him had to agree to hide their existence and live among the mortals as one of them. In turn, guardian knights will protect them and ensure that the pact remains unbroken.
However, the peace is about to be shattered. Recent events make Ben suspect that his protections are no longer in place, and already there have been a couple attempts made on his life. But Ben has more than himself to worry about. From years of hiding in plain sight among the humans, he has come to learn to look like them, live like them, and even care for them. Even knowing from the start that their relationship is doomed to fail, Ben has nonetheless fallen in love with a mortal, a young woman named Rose. It is in his nature to protect those he treasures, even though he can never tell Rose who he is—or what he really is—and all those unspoken truths have strained things between them. Now an old enemy has resurfaced to hunt Ben, and worse, they know all his secrets.
I enjoyed Chasing Embers; I really did. I thought it had a lot to offer UF fans, including a unique twist on the paranormal creatures that usually populate this genre. James Bennett deftly combines fantasy with real world elements, sometimes blurring the lines between mythological lore and history. I particularly enjoyed the story of Ben’s origin, which touches upon so many aspects of his character (both as a dragon as as a “human”). While heartbreaking, the details of these past events also make it easier to understand his complicated relationship with Rose, and reveal much about the tragedy that sparked an old rivalry. In fact, I actually thought a lot of the flashbacks and past sequences were done very well, going against the norm of how I usually feel about nonlinear storytelling.
But while I could list many more things that I thought were interesting or cool about this book, there was also this nagging sense of distance between myself and the plot and characters, that try as I might, I could not shake. It’s a dissonance that’s hard to explain, but we often use the term “bring something to life” to describe how an author can not only create something interesting but also make them exciting and easy for readers to feel passionate about. Part of my problem was that I never managed to reach this point with Ben or the world of Chasing Embers. I’m not sure why, since on the whole I found the book well-written and put-together. A few forced metaphors aside (how does one grin widely enough to “fill a car park”, exactly?) I also thought Bennett’s prose was complex and rich but also easy on the eyes. Still, something prevented me from feeling fully invested. In the end, perhaps it simply boils down to having too much to absorb in a very short time. There is, after all, a lot going on in this book.
The good news though, is that Chasing Embers has established a strong foundation for future books in this series. Now that most of the world-building, history and background of the lore has been covered, hopefully the sequel won’t be as bogged down and will be freer to delve deeper into the characters and expand on plot development. If I sound like I’m placing some high expectations on the next book, the truth is that most urban fantasy series take a time to build, and it’s not uncommon for one to take more than one installment to hook me. This might be the case here. Chasing Embers gave me a good taste of what’s to come, piquing my interest even it did not sweep me off my feet, but I am definitely curious to see what else Bennett has in store.