Between Two Fires by Christopher Beuhlman • Ace Books • October 2, 2012
Review by Robin Marx
In fourteenth-century France, all hell is breaking loose. War and the Black Plague have ravaged the land. Survivors live in decimated villages, suspicious of their neighbors and outright hostile to outsiders. The wealthy barricade themselves in palatial manors, ignoring the devastation outside their fortified walls and feasting like there is no tomorrow. And indeed there may not be: the devout have concluded that God has turned his face from mankind, abandoning the earthly realm to the depredations of demons from the pit.
The narrative begins with a fateful encounter between Thomas, a disgraced knight, and an orphaned girl hiding in a dilapidated farmhouse with the plague-ridden remains of her father. A scarred veteran who handled himself capably in battle yet still saw his title and holdings stripped from him through the machinations of a rival, Thomas has discarded the tenets of chivalry and turned to banditry. But when this strange, vulnerable girl turns up pleading for help, against his better instincts he allows himself to become her protector. He agrees to take her as far as the next town, but unpredictable circumstances and the girl’s prophetic and compelling visions of angels and demons spur them on a much longer journey, from the ruins of Normandy to Paris and beyond.
The odyssey that follows blends perilous and down-to-earth struggles to survive with surreal encounters with the supernatural. Billed as a medieval horror novel, much of the book adopts a decidedly “grimdark” tone, somewhat akin to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but set in the late Middle Ages. Most characters are—justifiably—paranoid or desperate, as any stranger could be a carrier of the plague or an opportunistic brigand intent on murder and thievery. However, this gritty and earthy atmosphere gives way to a much more phantasmagorical writing style whenever Thomas and his ward come into contact with the book’s numerous supernatural threats, some demonic in the traditional Biblical sense and others verging on Lovecraftian in nature. On those rare occasions when Thomas and the girl (whose name is not revealed to the reader until surprisingly far into the book) have a brush with the sublime, Buehlman adopts a much more lyrical tone. Throughout the book the author smoothly shifts gears between these disparate styles, masterfully punctuating each scene. I wasn’t shocked to learn, after finishing the book, that Buehlman is an award-winning poet.
Another aspect of the novel that benefits from the author’s expertise is the combat scenes. Buehlman has worked with fight choreographers, trained with swords and bows, and has worked as a combat performer at numerous Renaissance Faires. This experience, coupled with the assistance of multiple medieval weaponry experts cited in the book’s acknowledgements, lends the fights in the book a vivid and naturalistic feel. Combat as presented here is weighty, brutal, and never entered into lightly. It’s about as far from swashbuckling as you can get: combatants grow tired, bystanders interfere, and a chance loss of footing is just as likely to end one’s life as a well-placed blow.
While the prose styling and robust action stand out, the most appealing element is the humanity with which Buehlman treats his characters. The hesitant, growing bond between Thomas and the girl takes center stage, but the supporting cast are also rendered with care and patience. The people that the duo come into contact with are often frightened or suspicious, or seek to take advantage, but the reader is given insight into those characters’ doubts and fears, the dire circumstances that push them to act in the manner they do. For all but the most demonic members of the cast, when a supporting character betrays or acts against the interests of the protagonists, they’re usually given an achingly sympathetic and human reason for doing so. The world is blatantly and terrifyingly broken, and they’re all doing what they can to get by.
So much of Between Two Fires deals with questions of faith, but I hesitate to label this book a Christian apologia or parable. There are physical manifestations of Biblical angels and devils aplenty, but the focus remains firmly fixed on mankind. It is a moving humanist tale, demonstrating that no angel or savior can come to the rescue without people first learning to trust, cooperate, forgive, and even love one another under the grimmest of circumstances.
Recommended to fans of grimdark fantasy or dark historical fiction. It’s a grueling journey, but the oppressive onyx storm clouds overhead hide a platinum lining.
Editor’s Note: If you’d like to see more reviews of new S&S and fantasy, or if you’re interested in writing for us, let us know at youngneedles (at) gmail (dot) com.