The Harp & Ring Series
by Ilana C. Myer
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted January 13, 2020
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, so that might give you a clue as to who I want to be the victor in the end.
To be continued.
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