This is Downum’s debut fantasy novel, set in a jungle-type world with a complicated political system seething with discontent.
For Isyllt Iskaldur, necromancer and spy, the brewing revolution is a chance to prove herself to the crown. All she has to do is find and finance the revolutionaries, and help topple the palaces of Symir. But she is torn between her new friends and her duties, and the longer she stays in this monsoon-drenched city, the more intrigue she uncovers – even the dead are plotting. As the waters rise and the dams crack, Isyllt must choose between her mission and the city she came to save.
This political intrigue certainly hits the ground running – events stack up and we are swiftly introduced to the cast of characters who are immediately plunged into the action. In this case, this has its drawbacks. Downum’s inexperience shows, I feel, in the lack of any real explanation about the political situation – it is all implicit, which is certainly a plus side for the narrative drive, but I did find myself floundering for a while as I sorted out exactly who was on which side. It didn’t help that in addition to the countries slogging it out – there were also a bunch of factions and clans weighing in.
In addition to the scarcity of background information necessary to clarify the plots and counter-plots, the three female protagonists are far too similar. They are all reasonably young; all are competent magic-users; all have a conflict of loyalties and issues around their love life. Given that Downum doesn’t do hanging around to let the reader get her bearings, I was also a bit adrift as to exactly which one was doing what… Granted, I read this at a time when I wasn’t at my sharpest best – but I did feel this confusion could have been avoided if their characters weren’t so alike. The very similarity of the three main characters meant that they all occupied the same niche in the cast of characters. I think this very much lessened the impact at the end, simply because the reader has been asked to empathise with three versions of the same type, rather than a range of fully rounded, completely different individuals, thus diluting our feelings for each of them.
That said, I didn’t hurl the book across the bedroom. One reason is because Downum’s description of her world is outstandingly good. The city itself is beautifully described and one of Downum’s strengths as a writer is her ability to write action scenes where her characters experience the full range of climactic conditions, as well as coping with whatever else is going on.
I also very much enjoyed her magic and undead system. This was where Downum’s lack of explanation absolutely worked. The depiction of the various types of magic and nasty creatures was riveting and worked well with the action scenes. I note from the cover that this is the first in a series – which means that we’ll get a chance to revisit this exciting world. I’m hoping that next time around, Downum will take just a bit more time to better establish her political system and ensure her characters are more varied – and if she does, then she’ll have written a really superb fantasy thriller, rather than a good one with some flashes of brilliance.