I read Taming Fire on a recommendation, and I probably never would have picked it up otherwise. While I'm a HUGE fan of the Fantasy genre, I tend to avoid Young Adult offerings, as they tend to be a bit pedantic. But what I found here was a pleasant surprise.
Make no mistake: this novel is exactly what it sets out to be. My first inclination when I picked it up was that I would have enjoyed it a bit more twenty years ago, but it made for pleasant light reading, so I didn't put it down. And I'm glad I gave it a chance. Half way through the first chapter I was reminded of when I loved fantasy written for the young adult crowd, and by the end of the chapter it was evoking memories of Lloyd Alexander and C S Lewis.
The plot was good, with enough drama to keep it interesting and enough reversals of fortune to keep the story from getting stale. It had the archetypical story arcs and sub-arcs for YA fantasy, with plenty of action to keep the reader engaged. Conflict and resolution come quick on the heels of one another, and the main character is given a number of opportunities to be in emotional crisis. And the author did a solid job of putting the conflicts in place, in a way that kept the story engaging.
The environment was well created, each scene evoking strong imagery. Cities of flowers, imposing wizards academies, and seaside shacks all came alive in my mind's eye. More importantly the author did an excellent job of giving detail without forcing the reader to drown in it, keeping the reader engaged with the progress of the story rather than overdoing the backdrop painting. That's a fine line to walk, but it was done with skill here.
The characters are engaging and easily identifiable. The author drew on solid archetypes in creating his characters (shepherd-turned-hero, strong-but-vulnerable-princess, evil-sorcerer, etc), which gives them a lot of flesh in spare exposition. The characters come alive, and the relationships between them are engaging, entertaining, and emotional.
There were a few things that I wasn't sure that I liked. Some of the situations seemed a bit contrived, the romantic relationship between the hero and the love interest seemed forced, and the hero seemed saved by the Deus ex Machina one too many times. But when I looked at them from a Young Adult perspective, all of those details fell into place. There is a time when you WANT the world to all fall into place, where love should be something magical, when the constant threat of oblivion and saving by grace gives meaning to the struggles in your life. There is a perfect time for these messages, and Taming Fire delivers this in spades. It also has a well-conceived concept of magic, a solid political framework, and a GREAT dragon that makes you want to find out what the dooms-day prophecy of a draconic apocalypse has in store for the young hero.
If you like Young Adult fantasy, infused with a rich and magical world, you'll love Taming Fire. If you're not so much into the Young Adult genre, it's still worth giving it a read. You'll be glad you picked it up.