Following the literary model of the unlikely hero, Catalyst: The Passage of Hellsfire introduces us to a poor boy whose moral convictions lead him into the path of greatness. A "do or die" situation awakens latent powers within him that start his quest to become stronger than he ever thought possible. Good timing, too, since he is soon called upon to save his world from malevolent forces that threaten its very existence.
The story follows our protagonist, Hellsfire, over a three to four year period of time, during which his powers manifest, and he learns to control them. Sort of. Up until he ends his training prematurely, what we see are snippets of time, short scenes that hold some sort of importance in terms of the plot. It was as if I were reading the Cliff Notes version of classic epic fantasy, gleaning key information so I could jump ahead to the meatier portions of the tale. For this sort of story, however, I would have appreciated more expansion upon these truncated sections. One of the reasons that we love books about the everyman succeeding is that we place ourselves in his shoes and share in his triumphs. With the time skips and quick summations of interim events, I got to the end of Hellsfire's training feeling somewhat robbed.
Perhaps part of the problem is that I never fully connected with the character. He comes across as a petulant child with good intentions, and while his generosity and determined dedication to good are admirable, I was frequently annoyed by his repetitive thought patterns and his canned reactions to key events. For the most part, side characters were significantly more likable. Both Cynder and Jastillian ameliorated my issues with Hellsfire to some extent.
In spite of these complaints, the book grew much more interesting after Hellsfire finally reached Alexandria. From that point forward, I became truly immersed in the story, racing quickly towards its conclusion rather than dragging my feet. With the assembling of armies and the introduction of a sociopathic villain and his cannibalistic cronies, the plot began to take shape, driving pesky details like character development into the background. I found myself genuinely emotionally invested in the outcome of each skirmish, especially since the pacing finally seemed to come into its own.
In terms of the writing, I am somewhat torn. The style appears to be designed for middle school readers, grammatical errors aside, but some of the violent content (e.g. mutilated ogre corpses) makes me hesitant to recommend it to children in their early teens. Perhaps I'm being overly prudish about it. In any case, the language is accessible for younger readers, though I would keep the war-related imagery in mind.
On the whole, Catalyst: The Passage of Hellsfire held a lot of promise in terms of the author's intended storyline. For those who want a quick, easy read with interest, it just may fit the bill.
(Review copy provided by the author)