Old, Familiar Tropes: Last Song Before Night by Ilana C. Myer

Last Song Before Night is Ilana C. Myer’s debut novel, out last month from Tor Books. It is a novel of music, magic, and a darkness at the heart of a kingdom. Unusually among debut fantasy novels with an epic bent, it stands alone. And I wanted to like it a lot more than, it turns out, I actually did.

Maybe it’s just that I’m getting more jaded as I get older. Maybe it’s that Last Song Before Night feels like a version of a story I’ve seen many hundreds of times before: a more adult and more elevated version of one of those Mercedes Lackey novels with bards and evil magic. There’s nothing particularly wrong with writing a new story that uses old tropes in familiar configurations. Indeed, in many cases I’m quite fond of them, and Last Song Before Night is confidently written, with a solid touch for evoking believable characters.

But it’s Last Song Before Night‘s bad luck, and mine, that the old tropes it’s using are ones to which I’m violently indifferent. (That’s an oxymoron, perhaps: but how else to express the sentiment?)

In Eivar, poets once created enchantments from words and music. But blood magic unleashed a terrible plague—the Red Death—and the power was lost. Now there are rumours that the Red Death is returning. Valanir Ocune, one of the highest ranked poets, returns from self-imposed exile to perform a forbidden song in the home of a merchant on the eve of a great festival: a call to arms to seek to regain the enchantments that were lost.

Kimbralin Amaristoth fled her aristocratic home to escape her monster of a brother, who beat and controlled her. Now she answers to the name of Lin, and is a musician in a land where a career in music is the purview of men alone. Darien Aldemoor is a golden youth, widely anticipated to take the first prize in the musical contest whose victor might become the next Court Poet. But when a friend betrays him, he casts his defiance in the teeth of society and sets out to follow Valanir Ocune’s call. As does Lin, who feels compelled—and is, according to Ocune, central to their hope of success.

But the current Court Poet is, unbeknown to most, a blood magician, himself responsible for the returning plague, and the controlling advisor of a very weak king. He opposes their quest with all the influence and force at his disposal, and Lin and Darien are hunted by relentless enemies: Lin’s cruel brother, Darien’s traitor friend, the whole force of the law. In the end, only great sacrifice will be enough to return true magic to Eivar, and thwart the Court Poet’s plans.

Myer employs a variety of points of view, and a many-threaded narrative, building up to her climax and conclusion. It is an effective technique, if not the fastest-paced: Myer’s characters are for the most part interesting, and she uses them to show a variety of facets of the world of the narrative. And while poets/musicians as magically more competent than ordinary people is a trope that annoys me, I must admit it is relatively well developed here.

But a couple of other things annoyed me in more serious ways. A handful of Last Song Before Night’s characters are people who have both suffered at the hands of sadists and also possess sadistic tendencies themselves. Some of these characters are involved in sexual relationships that, while not explicitly described, appear to be fairly kinky but not in safe, sane and consensual ways. The narrative at times displays what seems an almost prurient interest in the infliction of emotional and physical violence, but appears to ascribe, in at least three cases, these sadistic tendencies to the result of abuse in the characters’ childhoods. Sadism with sexual overtones also seems in most cases to be used in the narrative as an indicator of moral weakness to moral bankruptcy, and this seems to me to be an unimaginative method of characterisation.

Valanir Ocune. Valanir Ocune is a figure in the narrative that really annoys me. He’s a Gandalf-figure, popping up to set protagonists on their way and dispense cryptic advice and opaque presentiments of the future. If the plot is so all-fired important, why doesn’t he do something more active to help out? (Can we kill this trope? Please?)

And tied for Most Annoying Thing is Lin’s role in the narrative. Her position is that of Chosen One, albeit without any prophetic imprimatur other than Valanir Ocune’s presentiments. She is narratively special, but for a significant portion of the story she seems to be less making her own choices and more going along with what other people want from her. I have developed a new rule of thumb for stories in the last year: if I can’t understand why one of the protagonists doesn’t ditch the whole business in favour of a quiet life on a warm beach… I’m not going to feel the need to be charitable about the book.

The setting is vaguely Northern European, all the viewpoint characters are heterosexual—I’m not sure if even the possibility of queerness is mentioned—and there might be one or two characters who aren’t described as white. There are three female characters with significant speaking parts, and two of them are viewpoint characters: it passes the Bechdel test, I think. (Political correctness gone mad? Oh, yes, but then, this is part of the criteria on which I evaluate whether or not a novel satisfies me.)

I am perhaps a little hard on Last Song Before Night: it is a perfectly cromulent debut. It has the promise of better novels within it. But on the whole, it feels entirely ordinary. Ordinary isn’t necessarily a bad thing: but me? I do rather want more.

Last Song Before Night is available now from Tor Books.
Read an excerpt from the novel here on Tor.com

Liz Bourke is a cranky person who reads books. Her blog. Her Twitter.

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