Kingdoms of Dust is a book that enjoys playing with your expectations. If you come to its pages anticipating an interesting but fairly straightforward story of fantasy spies, like 2009’s The Drowning City, or a twisty tale of murder and intrigue, like 2010’s The Bone Palace, prepare for something differently satisfying. If you’re drawn here for sweeping epic and confrontations with the forces of darkness....
Kingdoms of Dust has sweep and scope and conflict. It never happens in quite the way you expect. That’s one of the greatest strengths here, in a book which is in many ways brilliantly successful: it undermines the mood and tropes of high fantasy while retaining its narrative structure.
Exiled from her home in Selafai after the conclusion of The Bone Palace, Isyllt Iskaldur, necromancer and spy, is unemployed and vulnerable. With her apprentice, the androgyne Moth, and her former colleague Adam, she finds herself trailed and threatened by competing factions of a secret organisation within the empire of Assar.
As does Asheris al Seth, half-jinni sorcerer, intimate of the Assari empress, and Isyllt’s friend - inasmuch as spies on opposite sides can be friends. Asheris recruits Isyllt to help him investigate the ghost wind that wreaked devastation on Assar’s capital, Ta’ashlan, and the quiet men who know too many of his secrets. When Moth is kidnapped and Adam disappears, Isyllt and Asheris set out across the desert to the ruined city of Irim, and a confrontation with the “quiet men” of Qais, and the terrible thing they keep there.
There’s a sense here of things come full circle, of the same thematic concerns as were on display in The Drowning City seen from the perspective of characters a little older, a little wiser, a little more broken. They’re nuanced: Nerium and Melantha, from whose point of view we see the inner workings of Quietus, the “quiet men,” have good reasons for their actions. Melantha, in particular, is very like Isyllt. There are no easy choices here: one of the most telling moments in the novel is when Moth says to Isyllt of Melantha, She’s trying to turn me.
“Ah.” [Isyllt’s] tongue worked against the roof of her mouth until she could say the words lightly. “Is it working?”
Moth’s chin lifted, her eyes unreadable. “I don’t know yet.”
Isyllt nodded. There was nothing else she could do. [p236]
Kingdoms is a book that succeeds on multiple levels. Downum’s craft is rock-solid, with an able control of narrative and sentence, direction and pacing. The prose is richly descriptive - at times perhaps a little much so, but for the most part lucid and occasionally gorgeous. The characters are complex, well-realised: they have inner lives and diverse, believable reasons for their actions. This is a book whose failings are much more things of taste, nuance and tone than any shortfall of skill: like any work of art, it, too, is flawed.
Kingdoms, as I said, plays with the expectations of an epic fantasy. It has world-changing stakes and the possibility of the end of the world, and a small band who might yet avert calamity. But it resists straightforward oppositions, good/bad, right/wrong. Tonally, thematically, this isn’t the story of how Isyllt saves the world. It’s the story of how Isyllt comes to terms with her failures and her betrayals and her grief for dead Kiril — and, incidentally, saves the world. It’s not an especially cheerful book. But it is a triumphant one, both in terms of Isyllt’s success and in terms of Downum’s achievement as a writer.
And it is an achievement. Many a writer has stumbled on the hurdle of the third book, particularly if their second proved as mature and accomplished as Downum’s The Bone Palace. Kingdoms of Dust doesn’t surpass The Bone Palace (Tor.com review by Brit Mandelo). That would be hard to do. But it doesn’t fall short, either.
Also, it has a manticore.
Kingdoms of Dust is a very good book. I enjoyed it a hell of lot, and I hope to see Isyllt and company return again. Soon.
Liz Bourke is reading for a postgraduate degree in Classics at Trinity College, Dublin. She has also reviewed for Strange Horizons and Ideomancer.com.