Author: Jennifer San Filippo
Publication date: November 10, 2020
Genre: young adult fantasy
My rating: 4/5 stars
Okay, hear me out: take the elemental powers of Avatar: The Last Airbender and fuel them with singing, rather than martial arts. That absolutely golden combination lies at the heart of the world Jennifer San Filippo has created in her debut novel, Divided Fire. A captivating tale of sisterhood, magic, and the meaning of strength, this book was a quick, refreshing read with a premise at once classic and original.
In a rich fantasy world where Songs literally move heaven and earth, one sister must use magic and the other must rely on strength to reunite when pirates, greed, and war tear them away from each other.
Miren has never allowed jealousy of her sister’s magic keep her from taking care of Kesia, and Kesia has always depended on her big sister. When Kesia is kidnapped, Miren will do anything to get her back—even team up with her sister’s aristocratic and seemingly ineffectual boyfriend. Neither sister had ever left their small fishing village before, and now they are plunged into the wider world, minor players in a war between nations. Each sister faces external and internal perils, and each finds surprising allies and unexpected strengths. How will the two find each other again? And what will become of them if they don’t succeed?
Y’all may or may not know, I’m a singer. Lifelong choir nerd. Classically trained for 5 years. Performing in classical, jazz, contemporary, theatre, whatever setting, you name it–and I love seeing books that incorporate music into their plots and worlds’ construction! Music is such an integral part of human existence, and whether tangential or central to a plot, it’s nice to see it acknowledged in fictional worlds. Combining it with magic, giving characters the abilities to–stealing terminology from ATLA–waterbend/firebend/earthbend/airbend just by singing the right song, is so freaking cool. (Also, assigning each element to a voice type–earth for basses, water for tenors, fire for altos, air for sopranos–was a nice touch.) I can’t believe I’ve never read a book with this specific combination (elements + song) before!
First, quick thought: one element of this book that I found particularly fascinating was the dichotomy of speech and song. In this universe, once someone becomes a Singer–someone who can control elements with their voice–they lose their ability to speak and need to communicate exclusively via sign language. One character, a noble, finds out that he is a Singer, only to be told that he will no longer be receiving any royal training, because people who can’t speak are easily spoken over and make for poor aristocrats. There’s something striking about the idea that, in gaining tremendous power linked to your voice, you could also lose a great power that normal people take for granted. The sign language representation was also refreshing to see included here; the limitations on communication it creates (inability to communicate in the dark, difficulty getting people to notice you’ve started talking, etc.) were fairly acknowledged and not glossed over.
Now, on to more normal book considerations. I absolutely loved that this was a YA book that really did not have any focus on romance–the extent of “romantic” involvement was Kesia’s boyfriend trying to rescue her. There were no love triangles. There was no random romantic or sexual tension. It was truly a story focused on family, especially sisterhood. It also addressed bigger issues including the horrors of war, the pain of loss, and the value of human life, through not just the two main characters but also side characters they cross paths with. I can’t stress enough how important it is for there to be YA books that aren’t romance-focused and that allow for exploration of other important parts of life: defining yourself and your values, leaning into the people around you, finding your place in the world.
The two main characters were excellent and strong in different ways: determined, impulsive older sister Miren, and quiet, cautious younger sister Kesia. Even when separated, both girls constantly think of each other and try to emulate each other’s better qualities, which I thought was really wholesome to watch. Miren’s companions on her quest did occasionally blur together or lose individual significance (with the exception of a cute little boy named Ori, because small children always make great characters), but each one at least served a distinct purpose and was not added randomly. And the plot and pacing were both strong, with each chapter serving a distinct purpose, no moments of action being bogged down, and generally strong forward momentum.
That said, this book had a couple moments that fell a little flat. Though I did enjoy reading about the characters and found them interesting, I did not feel any deep emotional attachment to them in a way that would elevate this to a five-star read. Some of this may also have to do with the fact that the writing was very clear and clean, but not very artful; there were not many moments where I thought, “Wow, I should highlight/save that quote,” if that makes sense.
Still, as a whole, this was a satisfying standalone, brimming with unique elements that provoked thought and made my nerdy musician heart sing. (Pun intended.)
Trigger/content warnings: slavery/human trafficking (not sexual)
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I don’t usually do this, but while reviewing this book, a couple specific titles came to mind that i think fans of this one might also enjoy. (The ones I have links on are to my own reviews of these titles!)
- The Harp of Kings by Juliet Marillier (an adult/NA fantasy with similar themes of sibling loyalty, musician main characters, magical singing voices)
- Song Quest by Katherine Roberts (MG fantasy–been a long time since I’ve read this one, but it also had a series of magic singers with songs that could perform different actions–healing, joy, sadness, death, etc.)
- A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow (YA fantasy about two sisters fiercely loyal to each other, in a version of today’s world where some women are also sirens who can compel people with their voices)
For interviews, guest posts, reviews, mood boards, lovely Instagram photos, and more, check out the other stops on this tour HERE! The tour extends across both Facebook and Instagram, so there is plenty of content for you to enjoy 🙂
About the Author
Jennifer San Filippo is a freelance copy editor who holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Jose State University. She enjoys cycling, music, and drawing. She lives in California with her family and a small army of pets.
Ah, yes, we all love free books (especially when they have such lovely covers!). The publisher is giving away five (5) finished copies of Divided Fire, and you could be one of the lucky winners! Giveaway is open to US only–sorry, international pals–and runs through November 16, 2020.
You can enter HERE. Best of luck 🙂
Thank you to Turn the Page Tours for selecting me to be a part of this tour, and to the publisher, Clarion Books, for providing me with a finished copy of the book as part of my tour participation. All opinions are my own.