Rebecca Ross’s A River Enchanted was named one of our best fantasy books of 2022 thanks to its lyrical prose, vividly imagined world-building, and satisfying slow-burn central romance (that never threatens to become a love triangle. So, you know sequel A Fire Endless has a lot to live up to—and a lot to do in order to bring the story of this duology to a satisfying ending. Thankfully, it ably does both those things with Rebecca Ross’s signature thoughtful and refreshing style, crafting a conclusion that will satisfy fantasy fans, romance lovers, and those who enjoy folklore-inspired tales equally.
Ross’ talent for bringing seemingly disparate threads together into a cohesive and remarkable whole is on full display in this series ender, which deals with the danger of a world thrown out of balance in more ways than one. From its refreshingly originally elemental magic system, which involves nature spirits and music to the vastly different cultures that have come into being on opposites sides of the divided island of Cadence, this is a richly and fully realized universe that is honestly a delight to explore. In fact, there are many elements of A Fire Endless that actually retroactively make some parts of A River Enchanted even more meaningful and interesting than they were before, a bit of alchemy that few sequels ever manage and its overarching message of hope and communal healing is something I suspect we might need in our fiction more than ever right now.
A Fire Endless essentially picks up where its predecessor left off: The Scottish-inspired island of Cadence remains divided between two warring clans, even as, Bane, the king of the north winds infects the island with a deadly blight capable of sickening both plants and people. (He’s angry that Tamerlaine clan bard Jack played his magical music to summon the spirits of the island in the previous novel.) In the East, the newly chosen Laird Torin is determined to find a way to save his people, a quest that will not only draw him into the spirit realm but force him to confront whether leadership is a role he wants at all. His wife Sidra, struggles to lead the clan in his absence, even as she attempts to balance her competing duties as a healer and mother. In the West, Adaira tries to adapt to life with her blood family, getting to know her mother the Laird, and experiencing the deprivation of the resource-depleted Breccan lands for herself. Separated from Adaira, Jack frets over what his future holds until an encounter with a fire spirit shows him a possible way back to his wife and a dangerous path to a new future for all of the island.
Jack and Adaira’s romance remains as compelling and satisfying as ever, and Ross quite smartly never implies that the two are anything other than endgame, allowing their story to become more about how they are working to build a life together rather than the question of whether they’re going to be in one another’s lives at all. And both have strong individual arcs as well, as each confronts their own complicated issues with family members they’ve never known and what sort of people (and leaders) they each want to become. Breccan culture is fascinating in its own harsh way, for all the ways that living with a plethora of magic but a stark lack of basic necessities like food can shape a people into the worst versions of themselves. From courtiers forced to drink poison regularly to immunize themselves against its effects to the violent event known as “the culling” in which prisoners literally fight for their lives, it’s a much darker and more dangerous world than the one Adaira left behind.
Though it has its fair share of adventure, danger, and romance, A Fire Endless is ultimately a story of healing. From family relationships to romantic bonds to the rift that divides East from West, this is a story about rediscovering the power of harmony and letting go of many of the hurts and harms we (often unconsciously) carry with us. Whether in the physical world or the realm of the spirits, Ross finds a way to deftly underscore the many interwoven ties that bind her characters and the world they live in to one another and the end result is both incredibly emotional and deeply cathartic. Are some of the solutions and reunions a bit…convenient? Probably! But let’s not forget that this is a story that’s as grounded in the traditions of folklore and fantasy as it is in the real world, a place where everything can come right in the end, as long as we learn the lessons that fate would like to teach us.
A Fire Endless is available now from Harper Voyager.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.