A Sweet Song of Regret and Revenge
A review of Last Song Before Night by Ilana C. Myer
On the surface, Ilana C. Myer’s debut fantasy, Last Song Before Night, sounds familiar. It’s about a group of young men and women, from various casts of life — from wide eyed and naive, to ambitious and dangerous— who are manipulated by the great poet, Valanir Ocune, and his rival, Nickon Gerrard. Magic, once thought lost, is returning to Eivar, for good or ill, and the fate of the world is at stake. It’s all been done before, but, rooted in compelling characters, and a deep-seated sense of respect for their emotional journeys, Last Song Before Night is so much more than an over-tread quest for lost magic.
Long ago, poets were Seers with access to powerful magic. Following a cataclysmic battle, the enchantments of Eivar were lost–now a song is only words and music, and no more. But when a dark power threatens the land, poets who thought only to gain fame for their songs face a task much greater: to restore the lost enchantments to the world. And the road to the Otherworld, where the enchantments reside, will imperil their lives and test the deepest desires of their hearts.
On her website, Myer cites Guy Gavriel Kay and Robin Hobb as a major touchstones in her development as a reader and novelist. Their fingerprints are all over this novel. There’s attention paid to the delicate, intertwining relationships that grow between the various characters — some of whom have past histories, others who form bonds of friendship or animosity over the course of the novel — and greater weight given to their goals and motivations, individually and as a group, over building out a deep fantasy world with a millennium-long history or complex, rules-based magic systems.
The touch of other classic fantasists are noticeable in the way Myer mingles characters from many classes and walks of life.
While Myer might not hit the nuanced highs of Kay and Hobb, master fantasists both, there’s a certain exuberance and enthusiasm to her prose and characters that makes up for the rough edges, immediately gluing reader to page, and making every new plot development a delight, even as its tugging at heartstrings. The touch of other social fantasists, such as Tad Williams and Lois McMaster Bujold, are also noticeable in the way Myer mingles characters from many classes and walks of life, building a world around them that’s recognizably fantastic without relying on overt and gratuitous Dungeons & Dragons-style magic.
One of Last Song Before Night’s most charming aspect is its small cast of characters — no more than a half-dozen who are centrally important to the plot. The stakes are irrefutably epic, and so often such novels are stuffed to the brim with a huge cast, each character playing a small, specific role in the overall narrative — leeching out intimacy and replacing it with breadth and variety. Myer, however, asks much of her small cast, and the result is an epic fantasy that is deeply rooted in the intricate, complex relationships that form between them as they each partake of their own personal journeys in addition to the larger quest-style narrative.
The novel’s weakest point is its antagonist, Nickon Gerrard, who is thin on background and motivation. His rampant desire to become stronger, to awaken a lost magic, thus keeping its power for himself, is short sighted and maniacally comic-booky. Contrasted against the richness of Rianna, Lin, Marlen, and Ned, or his rival, Ocune, Gerrard feels more like a plot device than an actual person. It’s a shame, too, since Myer does such a wonderful job of giving depth to the motivations — on both ends of the ethical and moral scales — to so many of the characters, no matter the size of their role in the novel.
Each of the primary characters in Last Song Before Night could be subject to a lengthy and interesting deconstructive essay, but none moreso than Marlen Humbreleigh.
Each of the primary characters in Last Song Before Night could be subject to a lengthy and interesting deconstructive essay, but none moreso than Marlen Humbreleigh — playboy rich kid, poet extraordinaire, and convincingly conflicted fatalist. At first, he appears to be a roleplayer, introduced to make Darien Aldemoor, the novel’s requisite love interest, appear more likable, but after one decisive decision, at the expense of nearly everyone who cares for him (who, admittedly, are few and far between), Marlen becomes the most pivotal and layered character in the novel. Not understanding how to pursue his dreams by way of empathy, a concept long stamped out by his unloving father, Marlen’s ambitions are vast, but he rarely has the emotional or mental makeup to pursue them in a healthy or non-aggressive way. Unlike his former companions, who mix altruism in with their personal goals, Marlen is single-minded in his determination to pursue his selfish goals, and, along the way, he rises, falls, then crawls from the deepest pits in the most interesting ways. He shows great weakness, and through that, his humanity, the best and the worth of it, is laid bare.
Through Marlen’s journey, we explore the possibilities of redemption, how it changes over time, and what it means to sacrifice one’s ethics for selfish goals. It’s not new ground for character-driven narratives, but Marlen’s complexity, and the way he interacts with nearly every other character in the novel — opening up new sides to his personality, desires, and theirs — makes for a fascinating character study.
Conflict takes many forms in Last Song Before Night.
Conflict takes many forms in Last Song Before Night. Myer spends a lot of time developing emotional conflict that stabs at the reader’s heart, relying on violence only when its impact is greatest. Unlike so many epic fantasies, violence has a lasting emotional impact on the characters in the novel, and the act of killing, or being thrust into combat, are experiences that change them, a catalyst for evolution.
Like Myer’s inspirations, the characters, and the fascinating changes that overcome them, are what make Last Song Before Night so engaging, so surprisingly deft and gentle in the way it examines humanity. If Myer set out to write a novel that would make Guy Gavriel Kay — a master at writing nuanced characters, balancing emotions, and creating a journey worthy of a grand ending — proud, she has done so, despite some rough edges. Marlen, Lin, and the rest of the cast still linger with me, weeks after finishing their story.
Unfortunately, all of this intricate character-building is marred by an ending climax that feels rushed and emotionally over-saturated. The first two acts are carefully plotted, like a puzzle, each piece falling perfectly into place, revealing coming political upheaval that promises to change the future of the land, and create a new set of mythical heroes. Once the climax reaches its peak, complete with a subterfuge, siege, and a magical confrontation, it occurs in the blink of an eye, stealing some of the impact and detail deserved by the plot’s meticulous build-up.
Last Song Before Night will toy with your emotions from its first page to its last, and you’ll love every minute of it.
Last Song Before Night caught me completely by surprise. It’s not often that a debut novel forms such an immediate relationship with some of its genre’s grandmasters, but Last Song Before Night will please fans of Robin Hobb, Guy Gavriel Kay, and Lois McMaster Bujold, and leave them desperate for more stories set in the fabulous fantasy world of Eivar. Be ready to laugh and cry, gasp in horror, and vent steam through your ears, because Last Song Before Night will toy with your emotions from its first page to its last, and you’ll love every minute of it.
Last Song Before Night by Ilana C. Myer is available now from Tor Books.