From Unseen Fire leans hard into historical fantasy


Cass Morris’ start of The Aven Cycle, From Unseen Fire, doesn’t do much to hide its influences from Roman history, but it does have cool magic, too.

From Unseen Fire is basically set in Rome, and its official synopses don’t really try to hide that fact at all. About the only things that get changed in this historical fantasy, sent to me by DAW Books, are the name of the city itself and the names of surrounding territories. Everything else, from the name of the gods to the mythical founding to the naming of its characters, is pretty much exactly as you’d expect it to be for a novel that’s effectively dealing with the later days of the Roman Republic, just with magic added in.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. In a lot of ways, it frees Morris up to spend more time building the magical system, and the magical system is absolutely fascinating. Who needs just the main and expected elements when you can add Time, Spirit and Fracture for a total of nine? (Yes, Fracture, and yes, it’s quite a bit like what it sounds like.) But when you compare the effort put into altering the setting just enough to building this system that has two gods governing the different aspects within, and sometimes some very different powers within each of the elements, then it all seems a bit desperate.

Our main character, Vitellia Latona, emerges from the grip of the dead Dictator with a lot of untapped potential. In fact, a significant portion of the book deals with her attempts to live up to the potential of her magic while operating within expected constraints for a married patrician woman in Rome. It’s in this side of things, with Latona’s relationship with Sempronius Tarren as he tries to get her to be more, that things often feel a touch repetitive. Sure, it makes sense that Latona takes a while to actually let things sink in, but Sempronius repeats himself a lot.

At the same time, though, Morris lets more than just Latona have her time in the sun. We spend time with Sempronius and his political ambitions, too, and his opponents in the Senate, Latona’s siblings and more. That’s what lets the book get so complex. A reader has multiple perspectives on each of the major storylines, and while it’s pretty clear-cut that we’re supposed to root for Latona’s side of things, that doesn’t mean that we’re not also allowed to suspect everyone’s motives in this.

There’s a lot packed into this book, and that’s what makes it, at the end of the day, quite the compelling read. As things expand into the second book and perhaps beyond, Morris’ knack for nuanced takes on her characters and fascinating magic should easily outweigh the slightly repetitive dialogue and somewhat easy setting choice.

Next: Unbury Carol is delightfully weird

From Unseen Fire is out on shelves now. Will you pick it up for a fantasy ride to kick off spring reading?