A Tunnel in the Sky

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The Harp & Ring Series
by Ilana C. Myer

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted January 13, 2020
Edits & Addenda on February 13 & March 1

Last Song Before Night / Fire Dance / The Poet King

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I've been reading more fantasy the past few years, some of which I've loved, others…not so much. This falls somewhere in the middle. It has an interesting premise, and beautiful prose, which is appropriate in a story about poets and musicians, but character development is weak, and the pacing is erratic. Last Song Before Night is the debut novel from Ilana C. Myer. It could work as a stand-alone story, but it is the first in a trilogy. It got generally positive reviews when it was released in 2015, I've had the paperback for at least a couple of years, but didn't get around to reading it until now because I got an advance copy of the third book from Net Galley. So now I need to either purchase the second one or get it from the library. Because I will follow up, I've titled this page with the collective name of the series, Harp and Ring, based on the two most important aspects of a poet's life and career.

Let's start with the good points. Not having read a lot of modern fantasy I can't be sure, but the magic system described is fairly original in type. Generally speaking, I'd say it's typical for magic to be performed through incantations or potients, and that does happen here, but perhaps in a different way than most. Poetry and song is the method in the country of Eivar, whose capital city is Tamryllin. In the past, Court Poets and Seers were able to conjure enchantments with their music, but some used the darker method of blood divination to create even more potent magic, to open the Path to a spiritual realm. Tragedy ensued though, and the enchantments were lost, although poets were still revered. Seers and Court Poets especially retained a lot of power and influence, perhaps even more than the King. Poets are trained on Academy Isle, the intent being for them to entertain and inform the populace of imperial edicts, although there are a few who feel restricted by that and wish to find a way to the Path in order to bring the enchantments back. Now one of the negatives; this society is highly patriarchal. There are no women poets, at least not yet. They aren't allowed to study on Academy Isle, aren't even allowed there other than as cooks or other servants. But Eivar is on the cusp of change, not only for women, but for poets in general.

One of the problems with the character development and the pacing is it took a long time to determine who should be considered the most important to the story. Several are killed off early, and relationships kept shifting throughout. At first I thought the lead character would be Rianna Gelvan, daughter to a wealthy merchant. Then the focus seemed to shift toward renegade poet Darien Aldemoor, with his nemesis being his former friend Marlen Humbreleigh, who betrayed Darien to win the competition to be Court Poet, next in line to be Seer. Then along came Lin (real name Kimbralin Amaristoth), who is in hiding, even passing as a man, trying to stay free from her abusive and vindictive brother Rayen, and also attempting to become the first woman poet. All through the book these people pair off, then leave (or are abducted from) their partners, with allegiances shifting, as well as the demeanor of all of them changing in reaction to events. Some of those changes make sense, others are puzzling. It doesn't help that the sequence of events is not always recounted in chronological order, and there are so many dreams and visions it's hard to determine which are relevant portents, which are just remembrances of past traumatic events. I'm not going to tell you which of those characters actually ends up the most important, but will reveal another as one I felt was presented most consistently. Marilla is a prostitute, friend and lover to Marlen, although he never paid for her services. In a society that constricted the activities of women she seemed to have been able to forge her own path, although a later revelation made it clear why and how she was on that path. This and several other elements were also disappointing, considering I expected a more positive feminist perspective.

I can't give this a high recommendation, but neither is it one I'd warn to avoid. Everyone's taste in fiction differs, and this received a lot of praise, with multiple 5 star ratings on Goodreads and Amazon. Some of those came from other writers whose work I have enjoyed. Some have categorized this as 'high' fantasy, but it's certainly not 'epic,' at least not so far. No large battle scenes, just individual fights, with some foes defeated easier than I would have expected, especially one villain I assumed would be around a lot longer. Then again, when magic is involved, maybe he will reappear. We shall see. I'll probably get to Fire Dance sometime next month, and The Poet King will be published March 24. Several times I have mis-typed the latter title as The Poet Queen, which might give you a clue as to who I want to be the victor in the end.


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Fire Dance was published nearly two years ago, April 2018. In some ways I'm glad I held off reading the first book, since if I had read it on or near publication, now four and a half years ago, and didn't re-read it, I'd have been lost during most of this sophomore effort. In a continuing series the pitfalls can be too much of the same type of story from volume to volume, or the author can risk venturing onto a new path, potentially alienating readers if their favorite character or situation is abandoned. As I said above, I initially thought Rianna Gelvan would be a major character, but she doesn't appear here, getting just a few brief mentions by others in dialogue. So if Rianna was no longer important, then we should have an exploration of how Lin Amaristoth transformed the position of Court Poet, or at least learn how she handled the magical enchantments that had been restored to the world. But the author had something else in mind. Lin, against the advice of her friend Valanir Ocune, the man who made her a Seer, travels east to Kahishi, with Rianna's husband Ned as an adviser. Something I didn't mention before is that even though the countries, cities, and civilizations are completely fictional, they can be viewed as reflections of the real-world. Rianna Gelvan is Galician, a people described in ways that make them an unmistakeable stand-in for the Jewish Diaspora. Kahishi appears to be similar to an Arabic nation, one group being Bedouin-like. Further to the east, Ramadus may equal Persia. The Fire Dancers brought to mind Sufi dervishes. I'm not sure about Eivar, perhaps Rome and/or Greece?

I'd rate this about the same as the first book, a little more than 3 out of 5 stars. The prose is still lyrical, several of the characters are intriguing, but the pacing is still uneven. Too many times the narrative seemed to be moving to a major revelation, instead it shifted to another scenario. Frustrating. Even though Lin was the predominate character by the end of the first book, and she recurs here, there are so many added characters that she is peripheral to most of the action up until the very end. The motives of everyone are questionable, alliances continue to shift throughout, and taken at face value very few seem honorable, no matter how they view themselves and their objectives. And again, characters that seemed very important are killed off unexpectedly, or go missing for long periods of time. It was continually difficult to keep the major players straight, who would be left standing at the end, or to care about their fates. Except for Lin. She is betrayed multiple times, or in some cases just believes she has been betrayed, having as much trouble knowing who to trust as I did. She does prevail, but the crisis continues, although she may be on her own against multiple adversaries in the concluding volume. Both books have had maps at the beginning, the first primarily of Eivar, but showing Kahishi to the east. The second book's map is of Kahishi, but also with sections further east, so it might be safe to assume the narrative will move east as well. At least I can't say it's predictable. I still have no idea who might end up being the Poet King, but I'll find out in a few weeks.


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The series concludes with The Poet King, which will be published on March 24, but I received an e-ARC from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. I wanted to like this, wanted to see characters I originally liked succeed, but everyone seemed intent on undoing any good they had done in the past, and even when they did good things it was almost by accident. Several eloquent, well-written sequences, but nothing added up to a cohesive, consistent narrative, and that applies to the trilogy as a whole.

Once again, characters are dispatched with little fanfare, some deaths are only referred to, not directly depicted. The title character, who is one of the villains rather than a hero, is killed halfway through the book. The one who killed him, the White Queen, and her major nemesis, the Shadow King, would seem to be almost unbeatable, but both of their narratives end in anti-climactic ways. There are kernels of interesting stories embedded throughout, but none are developed to any extent, or at least not in a way that interested me. About the only positive thing I can say is it's not predictable. But it is frustrating, and unsatisfying.


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Ilana C. Myer


Amazon Links:
Last Song
Fire Dance
Poet King

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