Cold Forged Flame – Marie Brennan

Tor are doing some interesting things as a publisher at the moment. Chief among them, is their focus on shorter form fiction, particularly novellas. It’s a market that is at least in part driven by the popularity of Kindle Singles – shorter works that can be read in a single sitting. I tend to be a fan of longer works, particularly big multi-part series where each individual volume is so long that the author’s name and the title can be written on the spine horizontally rather than vertically. But there’s a real appeal to shorter works. Done well they can explore ideas in a crisp way, and like the best tapas be full of intense heat and flavour but without ever feeling like a heavy meal.  
Cold Forged Flame by Marie Brennan is one of those novellas, intended to be the first in a series. The story is a relatively simple one: a being is summoned and bound to carry out a task laid on her. She must travel to a particular item and return with some of the blood from the cauldron of the witch who lives there. This being has no memory of who she is, and does not even have a name, but she is bound to carry out the task. Along the way she faces the traditional perils of monsters and geography, before reaching the witch and bargaining for what she has been asked to collect.  
Brennan has spoken about the genesis of this work and character as lying with a D&D character she created and has played many times. But to me, Cold Forged Flame works more as a metaphor for creation and story-telling itself. Brennan’s protagonist and the world she is brought into are blank canvases that are slowly revealed as more detail becomes laid upon them, particularly once the main character gains a companion on her quest. It’s a relationship that lies outside the strictures of her quest, forcing her to engage in a different and more thoughtful way with the world around her. And the transaction at the end of the quest itself (the exchange of blood for inspiration and vice versa) is a stylised representation of the act of artistic creation.   
Goodreads rating: 3*

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