Fires of the Faithful is Naomi Kritzer's first novel. That, along with the fact that the author's sister is a good friend of mine, make me reluctant to say anything but good things about it. Also, I have yet to finish my first novel, let alone see it in print, so who the hell am I to criticize? But enough about me, and more about the book.
The story is that of Elianna, a young violinist studying at a prestigious conservatory, where she is sheltered from the troubles of a land only recently ravaged by war with a neighboring country. Unfortunately, or perhaps as might be expected, since a story needs a conflict, the peace of her studies are soon to be interrupted. First a new student comes to the conservatory, a student with secrets. A mysterious song arrives at about the same time. Not long after that, the conservatory is visited by agents of the Fedeli, a ruthless order of religious investigators reminiscent of the Spanish Inquisition, only the heretical Old Way they seek to root out is clearly modeled after Christianity --- it's based on the worship of only one God and Her Son, Gésu, who saved humanity with a self-sacrifice that healed the earth when it was sick and nothing could grow. The official religion of the land worships a benevolent Lady and Lord who gave humanity the gift of magic, but the old beliefs have survived in secret, and are growing in appeal for a people struggling to recover from war but plagued by famine; crops are failing all over the land, and in some places even magic has ceased to help people. When Elianna learns a dangerous secret about the Circle of mages who are charged with wielding their power to protect the people, she flees the conservatory and sets out on a life-changing adventure.
What I liked best about Fires of the Faithful was its characters and the clear time and effort their author put into developing them and the world they inhabit. The religious aspects of Kritzer's invented culture were a little more difficult for me to accept, let alone sympathize with. I know Christianity began as a minority religion, even a mystery cult, but its power and pervasiveness in the world I inhabit made it hard for me to suspend disbelief and accept a world where baptism and communion are seen as tantamount to black magic. Likewise, maybe if I had grown up believing in Christianity, Kritzer's Old Way would have been more interesting and intriguing to me, but instead it was to me by far the weakest element of the book.
Kritzer, Naomi. Fires of the Faithful. A Bantam Spectra Book, October 2002. ISBN 0-553-58517-7