Fast, Fun Fantasy: Song of the Dead by Sarah Glenn Marsh

Song of the Dead is the sequel to Sarah Glenn Marsh’s debut Reign of the Fallen. I reviewed Reign of the Fallen here last year and enjoyed its voice and approach, though I found its pacing uneven, and its treatment of relationships not quite up to the highest mark, but it had voice in spades, and engaging characterisation.

Song of the Dead shares some of Reign of the Fallen’s flaws, but also its virtues. Adolescent master necromancer Odessa, having participated in a revolution that upended the rule of the Dead over her island home country of Karthia and helped to install a friend on the throne, has set off to see the world in the ship of another friend—the smuggler Kasmira, who’s been defying Karthia’s ban on intercourse with the rest of the world for quite some time, and is happy now that the ban’s been lifted. Odessa meant to slip away and leave her new girlfriend Meredy behind—she felt she had to, that she didn’t want to put Meredy under pressure—but Meredy has followed her regardless, with her own desire to see the world.

(Odessa’s issues around communicating—not communicating—with the people she cares about is a recurring one. She didn’t tell her new queen, her friend, that she meant to leave the country either. While making dubious decisions about personal relationships is one of the known prerogatives of youth, Odessa appears to be particularly slow to learn that talking to other people before she makes decisions that affect both of them is generally best. This leads to certain elements of repetition in Song of the Dead’s narrative choices.)

The world outside Karthia turns out to be a more complicated and less welcoming place than Odessa expected. In one country, necromancers are forbidden from practicing their arts. In another, Odessa and her companions are almost killed when they’re taken for invaders—the Ezorans, who are famous for their strength and their ruthlessness.

When word reaches Odessa, Meredy, and Kasmira that all is not well at home, they decide to return. Queen Valoria, recently enthroned with the cooperation of Odessa and her friends, is less than entirely popular. Under the reign of the previous (Dead) king Wylding, Karthia’s society had been kept deliberately static. Valoria’s introduction of many changes at once has riled the citizenry, as has her creation of a college where people whose gifts of magic don’t fall into easily recognised categories can learn about their gifts and turn their hands to innovation. Odessa, Meredy, and Kasmira return to warn Valoria about the possible threat of Ezorans and in time to help with the civil unrest. But nothing seems able to address the discontent. Odessa comes to suspect that other forces are at work, especially when she enters the Deadlands in the capital and finds them changed—empty of the Dead. She suspects that a dead former usurper, Hadrian, once also her friend, is trying to regain power among the living.

She’s right. But she can’t prove it in time to prevent it. Forced from the capital—escaping with Valoria by the skins of their teeth, unable to reach Meredy—Odessa and her friends have few allies. Then they encounter a ship full of Ezorans. If they can make common cause with these invaders, they stand a chance of restoring Valoria to her throne and reuniting Odessa with Meredy. But in order to fight Hadrian’s otherworldly army, Odessa will have to trust the Ezorans to bring her to the brink of death.

Although like its predecessor, its pace sags in the middle and its romantic relationships suffer from oh god why don’t these people have an honest conversation with each other and respect each other’s boundaries? as a phenomenon, on the whole Song of the Dead is a fast, fun read. It builds on the previous volume, and lets its characters grow up—at least, a little. But while Reign of the Fallen was a promising debut, and held out hope of increasing depth in further volumes, Song of the Dead doesn’t reach for the depth I’d hoped to see.

My dissatisfaction with this aspect of Song of the Dead is on me. There’s nothing wrong with a YA fantasy that has good voice, broad strokes for worldbuilding, and remains largely at the level of a romp. But I find myself gravitating towards novels that are meatier, with more detailed settings, and I find it hard to be as happy with a novel like the Song of the Dead as I am with a Jade City or a Court of Fives or a Range of Ghosts.

Still, I’ll be keeping an eye out for a sequel.

Song of the Dead is available from Razorbill.

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 was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and was nominated for a 2018 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, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

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