Last Song Before Night by Ilana C. Myer
Last Song Before Night (2015) is the debut novel from Ilana C. Myer, and while many aspects of the work shine — detailed world-building combined with protagonist backstory and development — they come at the expense of antagonist development, prose ranging from lovely to overly ornate, and, most importantly, the plot of the novel itself.
The novel ranges far and wide, but at its crux, there is a woman named Lin who seeks to achieve the impossible by becoming a female poet, forbidden in the land of Eivar for reasons that are never satisfactorily explained. It comes across as nothing more than a deliberate authorial obstacle intended to make Lin’s against-the-odds journey that much more difficult and her successes that much sweeter. Academy-sanctioned poets are restricted by law to only sing certain songs, upon pain of torture or death if they step outside the prescribed boundaries, and Myer’s characters have a lot of thoughts on censorship and freedom of speech. Historically, poets also had access to magical powers and enchantments, but a terrible plague caused by evil magic broke their ties to that creative magic hundreds of years ago. Lately, there are signs that the plague has returned and strange murders have been discovered, meaning that someone has begun participating in terrible blood rites.
Lin and many others, including poets Darien Aldemoor and Marlen Humbreleigh, merchant’s daughter Rianna, and a mysterious man calling himself Therron, must stop the perpetrator of this blood-magic if they are to save the people of Eivar. Meanwhile, Lin is on the run from her vicious brother Rayen, Rianna wants more from life than comfortable domesticity, Marlen and Darien each seek a glorious destiny, and Therron is caught in a desperate battle of wills with the Court Poet, Nickon Gerrard. It’s quite obvious how the characters are aligned on the good-to-evil spectrum, and there are few surprises with regard to their eventual paths, though some secondary characters get some interesting moments.
Last Song Before Night contains schemes-within-schemes, political intrigue, religious and personal persecution, and a powerful passion for the creative act, all of which are used to bolster these characters and illuminate their various motivations. When characters work in concert, the plot moves briskly and even small glimpses at Eivar’s history are compelling; when they separate, the plot meanders, and the number of point-of-view characters seems unwieldy. The prose has an odd feel: beautifully-flowing sentences are frequently interrupted by fragments and phrases, making it difficult to settle into a mental rhythm. It almost reads as though a person is telling discrete stories, weaving them together into a cohesive whole and interjecting commentary, and while that can make for a pleasant audio experience, it’s less successful on the page. There are times when it works, especially during Rianna’s sections, but it’s erratic elsewhere. I suspect that, had I listened to the audiobook version, I’d have a far more positive reaction.
I enjoyed Myer’s descriptions of the countryside as Lin and Darien traveled through it, and I thought Rianna’s growth from timid girl to independent woman was extremely well-portrayed. Her character arc was the most interesting and credible of the novel, and her voice was the strongest, followed by Lin. Otherwise Myer is clearly more concerned with each character’s journey than their destination, which works until the conclusion, when everything comes to a screeching halt. The climactic battle is relayed as a series of flashbacks, rather than actively experienced by the characters and reader, which is an unfortunate choice when so much importance was previously given to the villain and his schemes. Plot points which carry dire importance early in the novel either fizzle or disappear entirely. The ending comes off as an afterthought, less important than battles which occur far earlier in the text, and even less important than the struggles and triumphs leading up to that point in the novel.
Last Song Before Night is a good glimpse of Myer’s potential as a fiction writer. She has a good eye for descriptors and small details, and there were times when her prose was truly wonderful. She’s an author with tremendous potential, and I look forward to seeing how she cultivates her talents in the future, but this just wasn’t successful enough to capture my heart.
I picked up this book after reading Jana’s review because I’m a sucker for good prose, and Last Song Before Night does not disappoint. Jana does a good plot summary with her review, so I’m not going to reinvent the wheel here; I’ll just jump into my thoughts about Myer’s work.
One warning before we get started: Last Song Before Night is very stereotypical, 1990s-style fantasy. If you’re looking for complex characters or innovative literary techniques, or if you have a distaste for fantasy tropes and outlandish fantasy names, then this book isn’t for you. Part of the reason Jana is a bit critical of Last Song Before Night is, I think, precisely because of how much it incorporates overused tropes in fantasy, especially character-wise. Personally, this isn’t my thing either, but it would be unfair for me to penalize Last Song Before Night for this stylistic choice, which is ultimately most of the reason my rating is .5 stars higher than Jana’s. But enough of that — let’s talk about the book itself.
Prose is one of the biggest selling points for Last Song Before Night, as Myer writes chapter after chapter of lyric sentences. The opening passage struck me as particularly beautiful:
Music drifted up to the window with the scent of jasmine; a harp playing a very old song of summer nights, one Dane knew from childhood. The merchant smiled to himself as he scratched out the last figures in a column, the result of a long evening’s work. This was why he liked to work in a room that overlooked the street. Especially now in summer, when the Midsummer Fair brought singers and all manner of entertainers to Tamryllin. But especially singers — Academy-trained poets whose art was the pride of Eivar even now, centuries after their enchantments had been lost. Dane’s wife complained of the noise, but that was women for you.
And that’s just a taste of the 400-pages of delicious, poetic prose in Last Song Before Night. For the most part, Myer uses this style to great effect, sometimes interjecting short fragments to deliberately interrupt the flow to make a point.
Where she falls short, however is the dialogue. Often, the writing surrounding dialogue is very awkward; for example:
A new voice, faintly melodious, threading into the silence. “As I understand it,” Lin said, and all eyes turned to her. “It is the right of every Academy graduate to have access to the archives.”
Not only is the introductory fragment disruptive, the compound sentence in the middle of the dialogue makes the paragraph seem even more awkward. Without this shortcoming, Myer’s prose would be much more powerful than it already is overall.
With regards to the plot and structure, I enjoyed the plot immensely. I think Myers tries and succeed to make Last Song Before Night pack a powerful emotional punch, and I found myself very emotionally invested in Darien and Lin’s stories. Without spoiling anything, I will say that the climax of the plot did work very well for me, even though it was quite predictable. Structure-wise, the decision not to nest much of the final battle within a flashback was a good one, and Myers executed the climax decently though not outstandingly.
That said, I didn’t enjoy the earlier sections of Last Song Before Night as much, especially the parts structured as flashbacks. In part, I think this is because there are quite a few sections that end with a “surprise” and then launch into a flashback. This gets predictable and stale after the first two or three iterations, and it might have been better to save the flashback structure for truly important moments in the plot rather than overusing it.
Overall, I agree with Jana that Myers has great potential as an author. I think most of the groundwork and basic structure in Last Song Before Night is there, but there are a few details here or there that need tweaking. With some edits, I think one of her future titles might make my favorites list.
Since it’s about poetry I wonder if the audiobook experience isn’t the right one, the same way much poetry comes to life when read aloud.
Thanks for this review, Jana, it sounds like there is so much here to love!
It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes I read a book and I just know it would work so much better if someone else were reading it to me. I think you’re right, the performance aspect would add another layer of interest/vitality to the text.