(Full disclosure: Ilana and I have been friends for several years, and she and I are both writing novels for the same editor at Tor Books. That said, please note that I almost never review works by my friends. I am doing so in this case of my own volition; my review was not solicited. I have been offered nothing in exchange for this review, nor have I asked for anything. Furthermore, I have no financial or creative stake in this novel.)
Last Song is a fantasy adventure about artists struggling against oppression, and it’s a tale of a once-great society poisoned by corruption and censorship run amok. Its theme is one that never goes out of style: the need to fight back against oppression in all its forms, to sing truth to power and hold one’s government accountable to the people. Its narrative is propelled by the mystery behind a series of grisly murders in the glittering, jasmine-scented, romantically Mediterranean-style capital city of Tamryllin, but its most compelling element is its vividly drawn characters:
Kimbralin “Lin” Amaristoth, a highborn woman plagued by a cruel brother who refuses to let her escape his tyrannical control, is a musician and lyricist of uncommon ability in a culture where women are barred (by custom if not by law) from the noble calling of the poets. Her partner-in-song, a poet named Leander Keyen, knows next to nothing of her past.
Darien Aldemoor and Marlen Humbreleigh are esteemed, nobly born poets, graduates of the revered Academy, and best friends. Unfortunately, ambition and temptation threaten to pit these two boon companions against each other in a bitter rivalry.
Rianna Gelvan, the daughter of a wealthy and powerful merchant, is betrothed to the nebbishy but well-meaning (and utterly smitten) young nobleman Ned Alterra, who is unaware that Rianna has fallen for the poet Darien.
Rounding out the ensemble are the treacherous court poet, Nickon Gerrard; his old rival, the venerable but mysterious seer-poet Valanir Ocune, recently returned from a decades-long journey through distant exotic lands; Rayen Amaristoth, Lin’s complexly vicious older brother; Marilla, a woman who excels at manipulating men and extracting secrets, and for whom pain and pleasure are intertwined; and troupes of troubadors, legions of political power players, and a host of common folk, every one of whom feels as fully realized as Myer’s main cast.
Murders and betrayals force our characters onto a perilous journey, one that entails unraveling centuries-old mysteries and unearthing the lost secrets of magic that once informed the music of the poets, a power that was stripped from them by a paranoid and power-hungry political class. At the same time, a deadly plague known as the Red Death—an affliction whose origins are linked to the practice of forbidden “blood magic”—has many people of Eivar fearing for their lives and turning against the poets who represent the only hope for their salvation.
One of the richest pleasures of Last Song is seeing how Myer subverts readers’ expectations of the epic fantasy genre. It evinces all the hallmarks of a typical quest tale—then it becomes something deeper, more intimate, and ultimately unflinching in its examination of its characters’ ugliest qualities and darkest secrets.
Plotwise, this book shines. Its pacing is excellent; every scene crackles with conflict and urgency, pushing the story and its dramatis personae deeper into peril with every page. Myer does a fine job of foreshadowing, and of setting up pieces early to be knocked down later when the reader least expects it. She also displays a deft touch for nonlinear narrative, moving the reader forward and backward within her tale with grace and skill, so that one is never confused as to the true sequence of events.
The dramatic choices Myer makes concerning her characters’ private lives and tragic backstories are impressive for how fearlessly she depicts them. Where a less confident author might have pulled punches or softened the rough edges of the characters’ lives, Myer plumbs them for their maximum dramatic value. In particular, the exquisite details of Marilla’s relationships and Kimbralin’s motivations for fleeing her old life are brilliant in their ruthless honesty.
Pulling all of these elements together is Myer’s lush, lyrical prose. On nearly every page of this book I found sentences to make my reader’s heart swoon and my writer’s ego quail in admiration. Allow me to present a few of my favorite lines, excerpted for your pleasure:
“It was while occupied with this particular thought, this melancholy satisfaction, that Dane heard a new strain of music break the silence. But this was not music such as he had ever heard before. Dissonant, it ripped across the night. Across his soul. And then blackness before his eyes, and then nothing at all.”
“Jasmine and honeysuckle twined in starry abundance on walls that sealed the mansions of Tamryllin from the streets.”
“Roses greeted them in a profusion that appeared white by moonlight, islands in a dark sea of thorns and leaves. … Stone benches were scattered under the trees with deliberate artlessness.”
“Valanir, eyes alight, had begun to speak.
‘It is good to be home.’ Each word, shaped with the precision of a rock carving, falling into breathless silence.”
“He was still in the old district, where ancient marble gave art to each slope, every winding passageway and soaring arch.”
The lines above are all from the first half of the book; there are many more of equal or greater beauty, subtlety, and power throughout the novel. Individual lines divorced from context fail to convey the flowing precision of Myer’s prose, which is imbued with the kind of lasting music to which her story’s poets aspire.
Last Song is an elegantly executed, masterfully conceived tale filled with memorable characters—some base, some noble, all steeped in real human complexity and eminently plausible in their motivations and actions. The wider world of Myer’s fantasy milieu, the lands beyond Eivar, are only hinted at in this first book, which gives the future volumes of this trilogy-to-be room in which to grow and explore new octaves of Myer’s opus.
If you love fantasy novels, I recommend you get yourself a copy of Ilana C. Myer’s debut, Last Song Before Night, at your earliest opportunity. It’s one of the most impressive debut novels I’ve ever read; I am in awe of what Myer has accomplished here.
The book’s official publication date is Tuesday, September 29, 2015. Let me humbly encourage you to pre-order a copy in hardcover or eBook format today.