Ilana C. Myer’s debut novel, Last Song Before Night, was a dazzling epic fantasy that mixed the scope and world-building the genre is known for with beautiful prose and a slow-building plot that crescendos into something spectacular. Myer has cited the legendary Guy Gavriel Kay as a major influence in her writing, and his fingerprints were all over Last Song in the way it paid close attention the delicate, intricate relationships between its various characters, and how its personal conflicts were often more important than the overarching global conflicts. Myer’s debut was a confluence of many aspects that make epic fantasy a standout genre for me.
To say I was excited for its standalone sequel is a major understatement. Unfortunately, despite sharing many of its predecessor’s strengths, Fire Dance suffers from too many structural and pacing issues to live up to my (admittedly high) expectations. Like a dancer unable to find their rhythm after a misstep, Fire Dance is a sometimes beautiful, sometimes flawed novel.
Fire Dance returns to Eivar, and explores beyond the borders of the previous novel into the arid Kahishi kingdom. Like its predecessor, Fire Dance has a small cast of characters, following three major intertwined plots, divided among four major characters. There are Academy students Dorn and Julien, who are learning the ways of the mysterious and powerful poets of Eivar, and returnees Lin Amaristoth, newfound Court Poet and diplomat, and Valanir Ocune, a Gandalf-like seer who always seems to be at the center of all Eivar’s problems. Unfortunately, unlike Last Song, the large events swirling around this small cast feel muddy and unclear, and we’re is often left to fill in the gaps based on vague information. Though they cross paths from time-to-time, and eventually coalesce into a single narrative, the various plot lines often trip over each other. Just as soon as one starts to get interesting, we’re whisked away elsewhere, sometimes in the middle of a chapter, and any sense of momentum is robbed from the reader. Halfway through the novel, I still had trouble understanding its shape, or how the various plots were linked. There are some genuinely thrilling moments, and things come together in the second half, but the plot remains confusing throughout, and even a strong second half can’t overcome the structural issues and dragging first half.
The roots of this issue lie in Fire Dance’s ambitions to be both a standalone story, accessible for readers unfamiliar with Last Song, and a sequel. It’s being promoted as a standalone, yet drops readers into the world without preamble or set up, challenging them to keep up with a world that was dramatically changed by the events of the first novel that the reader may or may not have experience with.
Dorn and Julien provide necessary accessibility for new readers, welcoming them with a familiar story about students at a magical Academy. But even then there’re many elements to their plot, including the mysterious Valanir Ocune and the return of the world’s Enchantments, that feel weighty and confusing for readers unfamiliar with Last Song. Lin’s half of the story, which embroils her in the politics and conflicts of the Kahishi kingdom, is ostensibly standalone; her narrative begins at the start of Fire Dance and concludes within its pages. But knowledge of the previous book is required to understand her political motivations and personal conflicts. Even being familiar with the Last Song, I still often felt confused by plot developments during Lin’s portion of the book, and sometimes wondered if I’d missed or forgotten something important.
It takes a long time before Fire Dance feels like a single, cohesive novel and not two separate novellas living within the same binding. This leads to a steep learning curve for new readers and a not-quite-satisfying experience for those looking to continue the experience they enjoyed in Last Song. Fire Dance would have been better served by choosing to be a full-fledged standalone and focusing on Dorn and Julien, or a full-fledged sequel focusing on Lin and Valanir Ocune. Instead, it wants to be both, but doesn’t satisfy as either.
Myer’s writing is so silky smooth, so beautiful that, despite the structural issues, sometimes you just have to stop and smell the roses. Beautiful imagery abounds. Without even noticing, I fell completely into this scene and found myself alongside Lin in the observatory that graces the novel’s gorgeous cover.
The space was large enough to contain a small town. It was impossible, simply not possible, that it was in reality this large, she thought, imagining some kind of illusion wrought by Ramadian magic. Light came from everywhere and nowhere; there was not a torch to be seen, yet the room was flooded with soft illumination like moonlight. Lin’s gaze was drawn up, to the walkways that ran alongside the walls in three levels, accessible by staircases of porphyry and gold. The walls that were entirely glass, clear as air, so that along the walkways burned countless stars.
All this overseen by an arched ceiling like a second sky, adorned with stars and spheres. Against a backdrop of black crystal, jewels made the constellations. Lin knew them: The Great Tree, the Warrior, the Witch, and many more. They glittered as if from within. Scattered among them the heavenly spheres represented with enormous gems of various colours. In Eivar they used the Kahisian names for them: red Mahaz, for war and bloodshed; blue Maia, for the seas and navigation; diamond Vizia, for fertility; amber Sheohl, lord of the Underworld. Zahir said, quietly, “The dome shows the original order of the heavens. At the beginning.”
“The creation of the world.”
Most of the time, these detailed descriptions are welcome as evocative scene-setting moments. The above lets the reader drink in the world and its history. At other points, however, as the novel’s plot begins to finally ramp up in the middle portion, these passages begin to feel languid and intrusive. They slow things down too much, and undermine necessary narrative tension and conflict. The reader begins to feel like a tourist, rather than an agent in the story. This results in multiple pages of dense paragraphs, scene setting, full of beautiful prose, but moving the story forward only inches. This was also the case in Last Song, but there the central mysteries (specifically the world’s missing magic) and various plot lines were more outwardly compelling, making the window dressings more palatable.
Myer has interesting things to say about cultural wars, and the way misinformation and propaganda spread during war times. Look no further than the titular Fire Dancers—the mysterious, magical group wreaking havoc on Kahishi kingdom. Midway through Fire Dance, two newcomers to the series discuss the Fire Dancers, who have recently raided and destroyed villages in the Kahishi kingdom:
“I know little of the Fire Dancers, Hazan, yet … I wonder,” said Mansur. “If something—something new—has happened that’s made them more confident. Or stronger.”
Their dance is said to hold power, and is blamed for the aggressive, deadly attacks against the people of the Kahishi kingdom. However, later on, Lin speaks with Aleira, a scholar with intimate knowledge of the Dance. “Whatever effect the Dance has, Lady Amaristoth,” she says, “it is only on the dancer. It had no other … power … as people understand it.” They argue—Lin convinced by a prophecy she’s studied, Aleira guided by her direct correspondence with the Fire Dancers. The truth, perhaps, lies somewhere in between, but remains elusive thanks to the varying perspectives and desires of the characters. In the curren political climate, this dichotomy between truth and falsehood is chilling. Secondary world fantasy is at its best when it provides readers with a lens through which to view the conflicts and politics at our world, and here Myer succeeds brilliantly.
In the end, however, I’m conflicted. Fire Dance is full of lyrical, thoughtful writing packed with so much resonant emotion that it begs to be experienced. On the other hand, its slow, sometimes confusing, and structurally flawed plot add a significant cost to that experience. In the end, whether it’s worth the price of entry is up to each individual reader and will be determined by their preference. Despite failing to build off her debut in the way I’d hoped, Fire Dance contains enough of Myer’s trademark beauty and wondrous world building that I remain convinced she has many wonderful books ahead of her.
Aidan Moher is the Hugo Award-winning founder of A Dribble of Ink, author of “On the Phone with Goblins” and “The Penelope Qingdom”, and a regular contributor to Tor.com and the Barnes & Noble SF&F Blog. Aidan lives on Vancouver Island with his wife and daughter, but you can most easily find him on Twitter @adribbleofink and Patreon.