Muse of Fire

by John Scalzi

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Publisher: Subterranean
Copyright: 2012
Printing: 2013
ISBN: 1-59606-639-3
Format: Kindle
Pages: 28

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This is another separately-published short work by Scalzi — probably a novelette, although I didn't do a word count. Since it's separately published and has its own ISBN, it gets its own separate review page. At present, it's $1 on the Kindle (and probably elsewhere).

I've read a variety of these now, and while the quality of Scalzi's short works varies (as with everyone), I've generally enjoyed them. This is the first one I've read that I really didn't like.

The premise is promising enough. Ben Patton is a scientist or engineer of some sort (I don't recall if the story is specific) working on plasma physics for a corporation. He has a nervous tic involving playing with a lighter and an obsession with fire, which his co-workers tolerate (and his boss does not tolerate). The reason for that tic is something he keeps secret: he sees a beautiful woman named Hestia in any flames that he's looking at. For him, she's his muse, and his untouchable obsession. He's mangled one hand trying to touch her. But she appears in fire because she's trapped in hell.

There are all sorts of great places Scalzi could have gone with this. Musae and inspiration by themselves are fodder for many stories. The woman's name is Hestia, which is immediately recognizable as the Greek goddess of the hearth and who is extremely important to Greek religious life (although she's definitely not a muse, but I'd even let that pass). That raises more story possibilities around the transition of religion and the effect on worshiped gods, including the way Christian missionaries called "pagan" gods and goddesses devils and indeed did claim they were from hell. There are interesting science and magic crossover possibilities between plasma physics and a muse of fire. And there is, of course, the whole rescue from hell angle, which has generated many a story going back to ancient Greek drama.

As you might have guessed from this catalog and my disappointment, Scalzi didn't go any of those directions. He provides some good characterization of the passions and discomfort of Ben's life, shows us the practicalities of his relationship with Hestia, and sets up dramatic tension, all well and good. And then takes the most obvious, least interesting, and least satisfying twist possible. I was getting nervous as I got closer and closer to the end of the story and Scalzi had yet to develop any of the interesting possible directions, but even then I didn't expect the train wreck ending. Even a simplistic "happily ever after" ending would have been preferable.

He did catch me by surprise, but only because I wouldn't have expected any author to take that easy of a way out of the story. I can't build up a proper rant while avoiding spoilers, but I will say that Scalzi even manages to walk straight into a rather nasty stereotype in the process.

I'm not sure what happened here, but it didn't work, and it's far below the normal standards of Scalzi's work. Such a shame, too, since the setting had so much potential. Avoid.

Rating: 4 out of 10

Reviewed: 2013-11-06

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21