Book Review: Calor by J.J. Fischer

Happy book birthday, J. J. Fischer! Today is the release of her third book and the first installment of The Nightingale Trilogy, Calor. I absolutely loved reading this book and can’t wait to share this review!

Fairytale retellings are cool and all, but nothing is cooler (literally) than a fairytale retelling mashed with Greek myth in a post-apocalyptic fantasy world. A world of gray, ice, and snow. A world where memories are currency. A world of power struggles, gifts, and forgotten technology.

Not hooked yet? Did I mention there’s magic? And a wolf? What about good guys and bad guys (guess which one has the quarterstaff)? Snark? Adventure and danger and fights and rescues—all with a thread of budding romance? If this sounds up your alley, you’ll love Calor, book one of J. J. Fischer’s Nightingale Trilogy.

Yep, you guessed it—the fairytale is Hans Christian Andersen’s The Nightingale, layered with traces of the story of Hades and Persephone from Greek mythology. (If you’re like me and had to look up The Nightingale, it’s okay! And if you need a refresher on Hades + Persephone too, that’s not a problem either. You don’t have to be familiar with these stories to appreciate Calor, but your reading experience will be extra fun if you can recognize the elements from these stories.)

As the most skilled mem in Nulla, I carried at least half the city’s nightmares in my pocket. And many of their secrets besides.

Sephone Winter

I’ll admit that I’m partial to the Darcentaria Duology, Fischer’s debut novels and my first exposure to her work, so I wasn’t sure how Calor would compare. But I’m thrilled to say I wasn’t disappointed. True to her mastery of the craft, Fischer’s writing, storytelling, and worldbuilding are just as strong in Calor, with the necessary differences of character, plot, setting, and other elements to make this new release stand on its own with equal pride.  

And what a work to be proud of! Fischer drops you into the rich depths of her world and then sucks you even deeper with multi-layered intrigue, action, conflict, and emotion, all told in her beautiful and vivid writing style. I especially love her creative use of word pictures that both portray ideas and deepen the story world. I also continue to be astounded by—and appreciative of—the profound realism of her characters: the good, the bad, the ugly, the broken, the beautiful, the lost, and the hopeful. You name an element of humanity, someone shows it somewhere in a way you can relate to it. Unrelated, Fischer also demonstrates her marvelous ability to stick a crowbar straight into the strings of your heart and give it a good twist or two. (Not speaking from experience, of course . . .)

“Pain cannot be created or destroyed, you know. It can only be transferred.”

Cassius Vera

What makes this book stand out to me as a writer is the way Fischer places you in the middle of the story—events, settings, and character perspectives—not just in the beginning but throughout the entire book. From page one to the end you have just enough detail to understand the moment AND want to keep reading. Foregoing the longwinded explanations common to fantasy novels, Fischer writes in a way that makes you feel as if you ARE the character, you’re IN Nulla, you’re PART of the action—dumping you in the middle of the world as it is and slowly, layer by layer, revealing more and more about it and the characters in a strategic gradualness that both answers and raises more questions.  

What stood out to me as a reader was the unique setting (especially for the first portion of the book), the memories and the magic system, and Lady Jewel. I LOVED Lady Jewel—not just because she’s a wolf (I mean, what book isn’t instantly made cooler by a wolf in the character cast?) but also because of the important role she plays despite her silence. She doesn’t speak, yet she communicates with other characters and participates in events, and frankly I’m intrigued by a non-human character who contribute so much to the story.

I was also intrigued by the whole concept of memories and the magic system throughout the book. Memories that can be numbed, preserved, and reused. Magical gifts that involve both emotions and, to a degree, some of the basic elements. I’m picky with fantasy magic, but I felt at home in this magic system and its role in the manipulation of memories that serves as the foundation of the story. Finally, I liked the bitter but unusual setting of Nulla, where most of the book takes place. With the post-apocalyptic winter of the country and the frozen canals of the city, I felt as if I were in a mashup of Holland and Venice after the Hunger Games—not your everyday dystopia.

Yet it’s this harsh, bleak setting that makes the book’s themes of hope and love shine all the brighter, like embers in a midnight snowbank. Surrounded by such despair, fear, and evil, the characters’ choices of hope, courage, and love offer positive inspiration to all readers and life-giving warmth during the winter of our own lives.

“For us to recognize beauty, we have to have known ugliness.”

Sephone Winter

Overall, Calor intrigued—and rewarded—me as a fairytale-myth mashup with a treatment of memory reminiscent of Lois Lowry’s The Giver and a magic system that made me think of Shannon Hale’s Books of Bayern. Note: I reference YA books because YA is my most-read genre, but Calor is not YA. Its characters are adults and Fischer makes no bones about reality—without dwelling on or outright portraying its unpleasant sides. Because of this deft treatment, however, I can heartily recommend Calor to mature teens as well as any adults looking for a clean, gripping, fantasy adventure-romance to add to their collection.

I can’t wait for book two!

P.S. I was given an advance digital copy in exchange for my honest review, and I liked it so much I pre-ordered my own hard copy. 🙂

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