Stories about truth begin with a lie.
Let me tell you a lie: Last Song Before Night is an epic fantasy about a band of young poets on a quest to uncover an ancient secret and save the world from absolute evil.
The archvillain of Last Song is a censor (and he could be nothing else). His trade is the mutilation of truth. I like to think he’d appreciate this lie I’ve told you, just there. It’s a very good lie, because Last Song is about all those things, they’re in the story, it’s true!
But that is not the true shape of Last Song Before Night.
When I started reading this novel I thought I saw the shape of it, mind. Among the towers of beautiful Tamryllin, roguish young poet Darien fights to win his aristocratic love Rianna away from her arranged marriage to nebbish, coddled Ned. His best friend Marlen secretly seethes with jealousy, stoked by the manipulative Marilla. And a young woman named Lin, running from her past, wants to be a poet—even though her world says that’s a job for men.
A wise old wizard invites them to save the world, and I felt sure I knew what kind of story this was.
Last Song is not that story. That story is a mirage, an assumption you’re invited towards—a camouflage for the real work happening here. Last Song is a book about art. Art is how we tell stories about who we are and who we should be.
The most powerful, damaging lies in the world are the lies we tell ourselves. ‘I can’t do anything to help.’ ‘I’m happy like this.’ ‘I’ll never do any better.’ ‘I’m broken and I can’t be fixed.’
Epic fantasy is the genre of making big ideas literally real, and so the real quest in Last Song is the search for personal truth. Everyone in this book is lying to themselves and to the people around them. The stories they’re living in—Darien’s romantic quest for Rianna, Rianna’s hope to escape her cloistered life, Ned’s desire to become a Real Man, Marlen’s conviction that he is inwardly evil, Marilla’s manipulation of men—are not their own. Their world’s told them who they need to be, and they’re trapped in those roles.
It all whirls around Tamryllin’s tradition of poet-mages. Marlen and Darien hope that winning the competition for finest song will grant them their desires. Rianna sees herself as a romantic heroine, sacrificing her birthright for true love. Lin wants desperately to be a part of these stories—their telling, and their making.
Art has scarred them.
The journey of this novel is their painful, bloody, heart-wrenching escape into a place of personal truth. One by one they begin to break away from their scripts. Even the world-threatening plot arc is predicated on a lie—not a lie of malice, but one of fragile, human self-deceit and shame.
The characters of Last Song are deeply surprising people. I think Last Song‘s best trick is its origami: showing us a flat, familiar character, then folding her, creasing him, looking from many perspectives, making us double back on our own conceits and doubt what we know. See—
Marilla is a vampiric, toxic parasite who drags down the men in her life—“Not even a woman,” Ned thinks of her. “Some sort of demon.” Or Marilla is a woman who’s made necessary choices about how to live in a patriarchy. Or Marilla is a survivor who refuses to live on anyone else’s terms.
Rayen Amaristoth is an absolute sadist; Rayen Amaristoth is a noble man trying his best to redeem himself for what he did as part of an awful family heritage. We see him at his most chivalrous—”Rayen reached out and touched her cheek, tenderly but without desire, as if she were a child.” Is this respect, or control?
Lin Amaristoth is a defiant, independent woman who refuses to be kept down; Lin Amaristoth is a psychologically injured person who can’t separate helping others from hurting herself. She hates the way she’s expected to perform her own life—”She was attired as if for a ball, some occasion where she would be presented before the nobility like a prize mare, praised over cool gold wine—disingenuously, and for all the wrong things.” Look at what rankles her most: that the praise is untruthful.
In the traditional story, stakes escalate, and so too in Last Song. There’s a villain who embodies personal and social deceit, a man who wants to abuse systematic mistruth about history to become immortal. There’s a journey—from the warm, joyful streets and carnivals of wine-soaked Tamryllin out across cold winter woods and ancient dreams.
But the stakes also grow smaller, more precise. The real question is not ‘can we win’ but ‘who are we going to be when it’s done?’ Even as the characters cross miles of earth, they also move across social terrain. Their relationships with each other pivot and reconfigure. And it becomes apparent that the only hope of salvation is for them to figure out the lies they’re telling each other—and themselves.
There’s a moment, late in the story, when every thread and choice collides. Everyone gathers at a winter place in the deep woods, about as far from the singing city as they can get, and they all reckon their choices with each other. They all face each other down and say ‘This is what I think the truth about you must be.’ And man, this book doesn’t flinch. The truth isn’t always kind.
Reading Last Song is like growing as a person. You start in a simple, mythic place, where you care about winning a contest and the person you love. You go somewhere complicated and painful. You lose people, and you find people. Some of what you learn is redemptive. Some of it’s cruel as hell.
But as you go, you peel away the lies that guard the truth.
Seth Dickinson is the author of The Traitor Baru Cormorant—released as The Traitor in the UK—an epic geopolitical fantasy about one woman’s mission to fix her world by learning how to rule it. Read an excerpt from the novel here on Tor.com. Seth is a lapsed student of social neuroscience and a lore writer for Bungie’s mythic megahit Destiny.