A Song of Fire and Ice (aka Game of Thrones) has become a recent benchmark for fantasy, and, though this fantasy debut may not have the doorstop amount of books and pages, it does pack a surprising amount of violence and high death rate that does not exempt major characters behind its pretty cover. It is a solid fantasy about the power of music and poetry that offers strong character development and refreshing takes and twists on standard fantasy elements.
In the land of Eivar, poets used to have magic but were shackled and hamstrung a long time ago when their magic got out of hand. Now, poets concern themselves with traveling, writing poetry, and performing, with the goal of competing at the tournament for the Silver Branch (kind of the Olympics for poets and the highest honor a poet can earn that comes every eleven years). It starts with a typical-seeming cast set up for a drama-filled fantasy: Darien is the golden-boy poet, Marlen is Darien’s best friend in his shadow, Rianna is Darien’s star-crossed noble-born love, Ned is Rianna’s best friend and her fiancé in an arranged marriage, and Lin is a poet with a secret past who wishes to compete when women poets are not allowed. There is a black magic-based plague sweeping the land. You can almost see that coming of age expectation: true heart and talent win in an epic tournament, true love wins, characters join on a quest to fight this evil, and that is where Myer shakes things up.
Myer introduces the villain early on, but the rest is a toss-up, leaving the story and tournament to switch gears quickly. It becomes practically a thriller, and Myer sets a nice suspenseful pacing. She jumps between different characters and their stories, moving them forward and connecting them with other characters. There are weeks between events in the course of this book, and Myer is able to maintain momentum with the different characters. It is not a quest or adventure that is over in days, and it gives more time for the characters to get into situations or do things that change them and they can learn from.
The story is character-driven with the characters being one of the biggest appeals. The characters grow and develop as the story progresses, making it harder to guess what they will do and where the story will go when the characters have changed from when they were first introduced. There are unexpected moments of sincerity and nobility, as well as moments of brutality and less noble ones that create more human, flawed characters overall. Except the villain, the rest of the cast, including a traitor and his prostitute-turned-mistress, continue to surprise and intrigue. There is a strong female presence, and they grow as characters and have their share of the action.
Look for Last Song Before Night on the VBPL Catalog. For more fantasy with music themes, try Patrick Rothfuss’ Name of the Wind (see review) and Anna Smaill's The Chimes. For similar in teen works, try Emma Trevayne’s Coda and Patricia A. McKillip’s Riddle-Master trilogy.
Review by Tracy V.