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Book club: October review

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Audiobook: Last Song Before Night by Ilana C. Myer
Length of audiobook: 17 hours 48 minutes
Narrator: Alison McKenna (Irish accent)
Genre: Fantasy
Audiobook description on Audible:
A high fantasy following a young woman’s defiance of her culture as she undertakes a dangerous quest to restore her world’s lost magic.
Her name was Kimbralin Amaristoth: sister to a cruel brother, daughter of a hateful family. But that name she has forsworn, and now she is simply Lin, a musician and lyricist of uncommon ability in a land where women are forbidden to answer such callings – a fugitive who must conceal her identity or risk imprisonment and even death. On the eve of a great festival, Lin learns that an ancient scourge has returned to the land of Eivar, a pandemic both deadly and unnatural. Its resurgence brings with it the memory of an apocalypse that transformed half a continent. Long ago, magic was everywhere, rising from artistic expression – from song, from verse, from stories. But in Eivar, where poets once wove enchantments from their words and harps, the power was lost. Forbidden experiments in blood divination unleashed the plague that is remembered as the Red Death, killing thousands before it was stopped, and leaving Eivar’s connection to the Otherworld from which all enchantment flowed broken.
The Red Death’s return can mean only one thing: Someone is spilling innocent blood in order to master dark magic. Now poets who thought only to gain fame for their songs face a challenge much greater: galvanised by Valanir Ocune, greatest Seer of the age, Lin and several others set out to reclaim their legacy and reopen the way to the Otherworld – a quest that will test their deepest desires, imperil their lives, and decide the future.

My thoughts:

[At the beginning of the month, I was taken into hospital for an op (see previous blog post for details). Everything has been a bit of a blur since then and I’ve just been trying my hardest to stay alive. As a result, I listened to this audiobook in fits and starts, which may have affected my judgment about it. I was desperate to put something up on my blog for the first month of my virtual book club but it has cost me a lot and is more like a few scattered thoughts than a review. So, apologies in advance! The thing that I’m looking forward to the most is reading all of your thoughts/reviews and seeing how you reacted to the book.]

I found it interesting that although many of the poets’ songs were thought of as clever and entertaining, it wasn’t until Valanir Ocune sang his unapproved song (the songs of poets have to be approved by the authorities before they’re allowed to be sung) at the Midsummer Ball that we see that the poems/music/stories with real power are the ones that speak truth. His song spreads quickly throughout the city. Although the magic that songs used to possess has been lost, we see that words, story and music have their own power and magic anyway, even without “proper” fantasy-style magic. They can change people and the world. This is a recurring theme in the book and a question that is repeatedly posed: is art a form of magic?

This book reveals its secrets slowly and I found myself impatient for revelations and for information regarding the characters and their pasts. We only gradually find out why characters are the way they are. Unlike the book’s description suggests, the story isn’t all about Lin. We get different chapters from the point of view of other characters. It’s a patriarchal world where women are oppressed and treated awfully. This is highlighted through the personal stories of the different characters and the damaging impact that stereotyping, oppression, sexism, abuse and violence has on them.

I liked Lin and the fact that she was pursuing being a poet, despite women not being allowed to be poets. I found it hard to believe though that no woman in all the centuries before had not tried to change this state of affairs. Usually, where there’s oppression, there are always people rising up to protest and fight it. Lin couldn’t possibly have been the first one. Maybe others were unsuccessful and were imprisoned or killed? Even at the end of the story when Lin becomes Court Poet, she struggles to change things for women and finds, despite all that she has accomplished (and saving the whole world from the Red Death), the Academy is still reluctant to let women in to learn to become poets.

I’ve rarely hated a character as much as I hated Lin’s brother, Rayen (but then, who wouldn’t hate him?). He’s pure evil. Cruel and abusive, he violently beat up and maimed Lin as she was growing up (until she ran away) and he killed her unborn baby in this way. Like many abusive people, in public, Rayen is manipulative and clever and makes everyone think he is wonderful – the very last person who you would expect to be abusive. It was with horror that, as readers/listeners, we had to watch him enter the life of the naïve and sheltered Rianna, and worm his way in. I was silently screaming at her NO, DON’T TRUST HIM. But of course, he fooled her and slowly manipulated her over time to get her to trust him and like him, as he did with everyone else, and it was horrible to watch. It was chilling when later on, Rianna woke up to find that note from him and realise that she had been duped and that Rayen was indeed a monster after all. I’m glad that she got to kill him in the end.

They succeed in bringing magic back into the world. I can’t help but think that this irrevocably changes the nature of being a poet. Before, a poet’s words/songs may have entertained, moved or comforted people; a poet could help people emotionally but could not help them practically. After magic is brought back, their words and songs have the power to pratically help, heal and fight. But this completely changes poets’ roles from makers of art for art’s sake to makers of art for its practical value. From dreamers to soldiers and physicians, in a way. It feels like something has been lost. Maybe this is the price of magic. It also takes away from the power that words/songs have by themselves.

At the beginning of the book, the poets were all competing in a contest to win the Silver Branch, the highest honour. The fact that we find out that the Silver Branch actually represents Edrien Letrell’s cowardice and failure to bring magic back to the world and not his success at finding the Path, seems to emphasise how everything that the poets used to strive for was based on a lie. Poets have a new purpose and role now that magic is back.

Overall, I found the book to be lacking in pace and there weren’t many exciting bits. Again, I don’t know if I only felt this way because I listened to it in fits and starts or because audiobooks always feel a bit slow and boring, no matter how good the book is. But it felt like the pace didn’t ever accelerate and it was a struggle to keep listening at times. It just didn’t grip my attention well and I didn’t find it very enjoyable. Disappointing.

Mark out of 10: 4

Narrator: I love Irish accents so I found Alison McKenna very pleasing on the ears. She was a little bit slow and her pauses were a bit too long but Audible have a feature where you can increase the speed of the narration. I found that x1.25 was the perfect speed to turn up this particular narrator to. Alison is so far the best audiobook narrator that I’ve come across (some are truly abysmal) so she gets a thumbs up from me.

I’m looking forward to reading all of your reviews and thoughts. Remember to leave a link to them in the comments so that everyone can read them. Do you agree/disagree with what I had to say? What mark out of 10 would you give the book?

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A reminder of next month’s book club book: Starborn by Lucy Hounsom

3 comments to Book club: October review

  • Simon

    My review is here (which I wrote before I read yours)…in general I agree that all the themes you identified are there, but for me they just aren’t very effective…

    What goes on?
    A sort of mediaeval world of poets and seers and their politics and the scents of jasmine on the air, and a quest to save the land, told through multiple character perspectives.

    Things I liked…
    The whispers about the blood magic were chilling (in a good way) and the coming plague intriguing. The way that the character of Marlen was explored was interesting.

    Things I thought weren’t so good…
    I wasn’t really grabbed by the world, and didn’t connect to the characters. It felt a little formulaic to me.

    What was it all about really?
    In many ways, this book is a coming of age story in the fantasy genre. So, the protagonists grow into themselves and find out who they really are. Whether it’s growing in their sense of self or embracing self sacrifice a lot is going on here.

    More broadly there are themes of: the role of censorship, the power of music, the place of women in society. I thought these were explored a little clumsily.

    Overall verdict: A rather ordinary fantasy book, that doesn’t deliver on its promise 3/10.

    p.s. good news is that I’ve started November’s book and I like it a lot more! :) I’ll probably write a longer review for that one as I didn’t want to be too negative here!

  • I’m so sorry to hear about your operation! I hope you’re doing better now, but yeah, this might not have been the best book to be in the middle of. It definitely has pacing issues, but I think I’ll still be trying out her next book since I see potential.

  • Emma

    I’m half way through the book and have to agree that it lacks pace! It’s not a book you can dip in and out of I’m finding! Has shown me I’m an impatient reader as I’m really struggling with the lack of definite action but am determined to finish it on principle, albeit 4 weeks late!!xx