I struggled to remember, as I slogged my way through Fire Raiser, just what it was I liked about the first volume in the series (Spellbinder). I've enjoyed Melanie Rawn's work for many years, and while Spellbinder was a definite departure for her, on its own merit it was a decent book.
Spellbinder had its flaws, but there was a real story there, with suspense and romance and sex that integrates magic with the real world skillfully, one that kept me reading all the way through. Ah - so that's what Fire Raiser was missing!
Rawn even points it out in her short Author's Note, where she states that the character of Jamey in the book was unplanned, but he appeared on the scene with "something of an agenda" and refused to go away.
Yeah, tell me about it.
With Jamey comes an attempt at crafting a gay male relationship along the lines of Holly and Evan's rocky road in the first book. Now that Holly and Evan are happy with each other (delighted, actually, as we are repeatedly reminded), Jamey and Cam appear to have this book's conflicted relationship. The problem here is twofold.
First, I simply didn't buy the relationship. Page after page is devoted to explaining Cam and Jamey's history, but for all the explanation it doesn't hold up. I know gay men in healthy relationships and I know gay men who've been in troubled relationships, and none of them look as neurotic and mismatched and Cam and Jamey. They go from smoldering glances at one another's gorgeous bodies to barely speaking and back again with no warning or motivation. Rawn may know what gay relationships look like, but I couldn't tell - if Fire Raiser is any indication, she has no knack for portraying them on the page. For a woman who has built up some of the most believable and interesting male/female romances I've ever read, this came as something of a disappointment.
The problem with Cam and Jamey may have a deeper root than that, though. They may be casualties of The Author Who Has Something To Say (patent pending). Here comes the "agenda" Rawn mentioned - Cam and Jamey's relationship shows up very conveniently, as the book circles again and again back to the issue of gay rights and how poorly homosexuals are treated. It's an issue Rawn deals with hamhandedly, with characters who are so hateful they're almost laughable, and dialogue that sounds more like it came out of a high school debate tournament than an adult conversation.
Unlike Spellbinder, where the story is bound to magic, in Fire Raiser it feels tacked on and convenient at best. The characters from the first book, including Evan and Holly, are relegated to spectators and commentators more than anything, and don't seem to really do much in this story. Without the conflict that made them interesting in the first book, this bunch of witches seem strangely mundane.
Oh - but the story? There is one, but it starts late and is given short shrift. Slowly revealed over the course of a long cocktail party that starts the book (no joke), a series of mysterious church fires has stumped local police and witches alike, and the solution is a mess. The plot tries to weave human trafficking in with a magical undercurrent, largely unsuccessfully. Another "issue," this one dealt with via a clumsy attempt at perspective shift halfway through the book and a slipshod connection to the characters. Again, Rawn had something she wanted to say and tried to work it into the story, losing both in the process.
I don't mind Rawn's politics. Gay rights? I support them, and have for years. Human trafficking? Undeniably evil. I agree with much of what she was trying to say, but I vastly dislike how she tried to say it. There are stories to be told around these themes, and they could be gripping, shocking, meaningful, heart-rending and maybe even mind-changing.
Fire Raiser is not one of those stories. Instead, it's a sub-par novel and a disappointment from a writer who has given me reason to expect far better.