The Element of Fire
The Element of Fire is a lot like a chicken pot pie (or equivalent comfort food): the ingredients are familiar, they're put together according to a recipe that is both handed down through the years and available in every cheap cookbook, and you know exactly how it's going to taste. It's not fancy, it's not even excellent: it's just good, solid food. And some days that's exactly what you want.
Not everything in here is 100% predictable. It's a second-world fantasy with a 'medieval' feel, with Seelie and Unseelie Courts, trickster fay and elderly magicians, court dandies with single-use muskets and dueling rapiers. The political intrigue is the kind you'd find in this kind of book, and genuinely suspenseful. More surprising is the complex and gender-egalitarian monarchy and a main character who is the dashing captain of the Queen's guard--but whose power in the court mostly comes from his status as the Dowager Queen's favorite, i.e. her lover. He's never diminished for it, either in his own mind or by the narrative. The characters are the strongest part of the book; they are complex and realistic people with deep histories and pains, whose motivations are not always entirely clear even to themselves.
I was feeling under the weather over the winter holidays, so I stole my sister's copy of this book off her bookshelf and took it home with me. I first read this ages ago, maybe in 2004 or 2005, and re-reading it is easy and cozy and comforting.
I will say, if you haven't read anything by Martha Wells before, or if you've only read her Murderbot novellas and want to get into her fantasy epics, don't start here. Start with THE WIZARD HUNTERS, which is listed as book #3 of the Ile-Rien series but is actually the start of a stand-alone trilogy set in the same universe as THE ELEMENT OF FIRE and DEATH OF THE NECROMANCER. Read that trilogy, then come back and read the two earlier books. This book is good, but WIZARD HUNTERS is great--one of my favorite books of all time. Wells started out a good writer and has just kept getting better, and if you get invested in the latter trilogy, the first two Ile-Rien books will be more meaningful.