Ilana C. Myer’s first novel, Last Song Before Night, was a well-written variation on a traditional quest narrative: the problem of restoring magic to a realm without it. Its sequel, Fire Dance, takes a much more innovative approach. It deals with the consequences, political and personal, of that restoration—along with who benefits, and who suffers, from the change.
Except more twisty and intriguing even than that sounds.
On Academy Isle, where poets and seers have long been taught, the death of one of the Archmasters ushers in changes. The poets are most affect by the restoration of magic, since it is in their discipline that the newly-restored mystical power lies, and the dead—the probably-magically-murdered—Archmaster’s replacement is building a coterie of young men to follow him with cult-like devotion. His ambitions lie beyond Academy Isle, and his self-aggrandisement doesn’t scruple at mass-murder.
Lin Amaristoth, Court Poet, is asked by her homeland’s traditional allies to assist them with a mystical problem. Mysterious practitioners of strange magics are conducting attacks on villages in militarily-powerful Kahishi. These “Fire Dancers” come by night and leave almost everyone dead. They disappear if they are killed, but seem endless, and there is no sign of them by morning. Lin isn’t sure how to help, but she knows she must. In Kahishi, she finds herself in the middle of court politics and fraught tensions between personal and political loyalties, including among the wizards of the Tower of Glass.
Lin is also dying slowly, as a result of events in Last Song Before Night. Kahishi is running out of time, but her time might be running out first.
Events on Academy Isle and in Kahishi are linked in ways that only gradually become clear. This is a book about choices and consequences, the tensions between loyalties, between loyalty to different people and between loyalty to people and loyalty to a principle. Personal relationships affect the fate of nations, and the fate of nations is a spanner in the works of personal relationships. Fire Dance doesn’t make things easy on its characters.
They’re interesting characters, though. Lin, part-tragic and all determined; teenaged Julien, one of the first young women to attend training on Academy Isle, and a very believable adolescent whose desire for just one friend is painfully real; King Eldakar of Kahishi, a king whose romantic entanglements have made his reign seem weak, a king better suited to poetry than war, but one who’s nonetheless trying his best; the Seer Valanir Ocune, whose potent combination of guilt and responsibility and attraction and love when it comes to Lin is dizzying and yet very realistic.
But Myer’s prose, precisely descriptive as it is, creates a distancing effect: the narrative’s measured style feels like a pane of glass between the reader and real emotional investment in the characters. Maybe that’s because Fire Dance is so very serious. It’s not grim—not in the tradition of George R.R. Martin or Joe Abercrombie; it’s not something you could call brutal or dark—but it’s damnably earnest, and it lacks a sense of humour. Or really anything in the way of lightheardness.
I think Fire Dance is a good book. It’s certainly a well-put-together piece of high fantasy. But as with its predecessor, Last Song Before Night, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you if I actually liked it.
What are you guys reading lately?
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It’s a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and is nominated for a Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.