Caveat #2: For any government official reading this, I actually purchased my copy of this book at an actual bookstore with my own money, so no publisher tried to bribe me into writing a review.
Flesh and Fire is the first book of "The Vineart War," and it sucked me right on in and didn't let go until I got to the end. One advantage to being friends with the author is that I could go right to her apartment and tell her in person to hurry up and finish Book 2... *laughs*
The one thing that sets SF/F aside from every other genre is that it's the only fiction in which the setting isn't real. In any work of fantasy or science fiction, you have to do a measure of world-building. Of course, most of the world-building that you see is fairly standard -- and that's fine. But it's nice to get something different every once in a while, especially given how difficult that actually is.
"The Vineart War" gives us a fairly standard medieval Europe-type fantasy world, but the twist is that the system of magic is based on wine, which, to the best of my knowledge, has never actually been done. And it works. The magic is logical, well thought out, cleverly integrated with the actual process of making wine, and also with the realities of a non-technological society.
One of the things that particularly impressed me about F&F was that Laura Anne didn't try to make her magic system all perfect and wonderful. Quite the opposite -- the method for choosing and discovering mages in her world is for them to be found among slaves who work in the fields under horrid conditions. Only a tiny fraction of these slaves become mages, but it's the only way to find new ones -- so an entire subset of humanity must suffer brutal slavery in order to service the creation of new mages. And that is realism like it oughtta be: raw practicality trumping everything.
When I read a novel, I can't help but at least partly read it as an editor. If someone submitted this to me, would I buy it? What would I suggest to the writer to improve it? Ninety-five percent of the time, if someone handed me a manuscript where the actual plot doesn't really kick in until after page 200, I would tell the author she needed to do some serious rewriting. But F&F falls into the other five percent -- the system of magic is so unique, and so expertly tied to its source, that those initial sections are necessary to establish it. Without that, the plot doesn't make anything like sense; that grounding in the oenophilic land that Laura Anne has created is a vital part of the reading experience.
Besides, it's cool. This is why we read this stuff, to visit new worlds, whether they're on another planet or on the other side of the wardrobe.
Laura Anne has always been expert at creating complex characters with distinctive voices, and Jerzy is just as compelling a protagonist as Wren Valere in her "Retrievers" books, even though the two share nothing in common beyond a facility for the magic of the world they live in. And just as P.B. threatened to take over the "Retrievers" books with his sheer awesomeness, I suspect that the fast-talking Ao will do likewise as this series goes on....
This is a fine book, a unique book in a genre that doesn't always reward ingenuity, and you should definitely check it out. You can find the book in the SF/F section, probably with the new hardcover releases.