Review: For a Muse of Fire by Heidi HeiligFor a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig
Series: Shadow Players #1
Published by Greenwillow Books on September 25, 2018
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult
Pages: 528
Format: ARC
Source: Received from publisher

"Be prepared to stay up late with this one."

"[A] must-have story."--School Library Journal (starred review)

"Evocative and refreshingly unique."--Tor

A young woman with a dangerous power she barely understands. A smuggler with secrets of his own. A country torn between a merciless colonial army, a terrifying tyrant, and a feared rebel leader. The first book in acclaimed author Heidi Heilig's Shadow Players trilogy blends traditional storytelling with ephemera for a lush, page-turning tale of escape and rebellion. For a Muse of Fire will captivate fans of Sabaa Tahir, Leigh Bardugo, and Renée Ahdieh.

Jetta's family is famed as the most talented troupe of shadow players in the land. With Jetta behind the scrim, their puppets seem to move without string or stick--a trade secret, they say. In truth, Jetta can see the souls of the recently departed and bind them to the puppets with her blood. But ever since the colonizing army conquered their country, the old ways are forbidden. Jetta must never show, never tell. Her skill and fame are her family's way to earn a spot aboard the royal ship to Aquitan, where shadow plays are the latest rage, and where rumor has it the Mad King has a spring that cures his ills. Because seeing spirits is not the only thing that plagues Jetta. But as rebellion seethes and as Jetta meets a young smuggler, she will face truths and decisions that she never imagined--and safety will never seem so far away.

Heidi Heilig creates a vivid, rich world inspired by Southeast Asian cultures and French colonialism. Told from Jetta's first-person point-of-view, as well as chapters written as play scripts and ephemera such as telegrams and letters, For a Muse of Fire is an engrossing journey that weaves magic, simmering romance, and the deep bonds of family with the high stakes of epic adventure.

For a Muse of Fire introduces a new YA fantasy series about rebellion, shadow puppets, and necromancy. This unexpected combination contributes to a unique atmosphere – but not a cohesive one.

Chakrana is a land in turmoil, chafing against colonial rule and struggling to contain a growing rebel movement. Civil war seems inevitable, but average folk still find a way to put rice in their bowls. Jetta and her parents make their living as shadow players, or shadow puppeteers, a highly respected and admired artist form in Chakrana. Jetta’s recent discovery that she can trap souls into her shadow puppets so they move independently has simultaneously imperiled her family and skyrocketed their reputation. The best players in the nation, they’re en route to the royal capital to seek a boon from the king when everything goes wrong.

Unwittingly caught up in the rising rebellion, Jetta must decide what’s most important: her art, her family, her country, or the promise of a royal favour. For a Muse of Fire is Jetta’s story, and her character is well-crafted and developed. She’s a passionate artist and a loving daughter who shares a close – yet troubled – bond with her mother. She also struggles with her malheur, which is a fantastical representation of bipolar disorder, leading to periods of deep depression and intense mania. For me, Heilig’s representation of bipolar disorder was one of the strongest parts of the story. It’s an important part of who Jetta is and how she behaves, but it isn’t her. Jetta is a fully realized character, with motivations, strengths, flaws. Everyone else in the story….not so much. They have their own backstories and very little else. Even Leo, the second most significant character in the entire story, felt quite wooden. Any character could have been swapped in for him with the same results.

Jetta's malheur, a fantastical version of bipolar disorder, is an important part of the story. It's rare to come across a fantasy protagonist with a mental illness.

The plot and narrative pacing don’t fare much better, I’m sorry to say. Like many fantasy series debuts, For a Muse of Fire suffers from uneven pacing. While the narrative “extras” like telegrams, letters, and scenes from plays were interesting, they served to disrupt the immersion from Jetta’s close first-person perspective. Each time one of these extra elements was added, Jetta’s story was abruptly halted. Although they do serve a purpose – quickly establishing the political and cultural context of this world – they felt out of place here.

Heilig draws on many cultures to inform her world-building, resulting in a unique and fresh-feeling combination. The violence and colonialism of Jetta’s homeland bears a marked similarity to the history between Vietnam and France, while the arts like music, theater and shadow puppetry draw on Chinese and Hawaiian culture. The magic system is similarly drawn from a mix of familiar components, largely blood magic and necromancy. Jetta’s ability to capture souls and reanimate bodies is connected to a painful family secret – and a terrible period of her country’s history. The mechanics of the magic are a bit too hand-wavey for my tastes, although I expect that is fleshed out in the sequel. Personally, I don’t feel compelled to find out.

Not recommended.