Ilana C. Myer, Last Song Before Night

Last Song Before Night is a competent debut. It’s pleasant enough, and I doubt I would react the way I have to it if it hadn’t gotten reviews such as Jason Heller’s on npr.org. Heller’s extravagant praise of the plot, the characterization, and the themes addressed in the book raised my expectations, and on all three fronts I was let down. Let’s say, before we start, that Last Song Before Night is not a bad book. It’s simply not an outstanding one.

To summarize: Lin, a noblewoman who has chosen exile and disguise, wants to be a magic-working Poet, but is barred from the Academy by her gender. Rianna, a noblewoman, is in an arranged marriage to a man she is fond of but doesn’t love. Darien, a Poet, is a competitor for the position of Court Poet. Lin and Darien are drawn onto the quest for the mysterious Path by the Seer Valanir Ocune; in their way are the villainous current Court Poet and Lin’s evil brother.

The problem is, despite Heller’s comment that “Last Song Before Night is no retread,” none of it feels fresh at all. The trope of music as magic is a constant in fantasy from Tolkien onwards; Lin’s disguise as a boy is, at least, not convincing, but its antecedents are too many to name; the arranged marriage comes up far more often than it should; the villains even use “blood magic,” which is a common and tiresome shorthand for true evil.

What’s most troublesome to me, though, is the fact that women are not allowed to be Poets. It’s perfectly true that in 2015 there are many professions that default in the cultural psyche to male, and until about a week before the writing of this review, combat positions in the military, for one, were male-only. But such overt discrimination is rare in modern American society. Discrimination against women is not limited to literal bans on female members of a profession, though: take the relative dearth of women in the US Senate, or in Silicon Valley. A woman doesn’t have to face a misogynistic law to face discrimination; it’s a sign of a lack of creativity, I think, that so many fantasy authors want to tell and retell the story of the first woman to break into a male-only profession. It’s hardly an “exploration of cultural misogyny” (Heller) if the two main female characters face stereotyped, almost strawman forms of misogyny rather than the more insidious forms that modern American women face – and besides, Lin doesn’t ultimately overcome the misogyny of the society on her own, but rather is lifted to high position by the command of a more powerful man.

The characters are, for the most part, likable enough; the villains are appropriately villainous, though they’re sometimes, as when Lin’s brother tells a woman he’s seducing that he beat his sister, a little over the top. But whatever strange magic it is that makes me fall in love with a character was missing. The plot carried me along, but I was not particularly concerned with whether Lin, Darien, or Rianna accomplished their goals.

A common thread in positive reviews is praise of the prose. Unfortunately, that’s the book’s greatest failing. Myer’s prose ranges from unnoticably-all-right to clunky, and from the snatches of songs she gives us, it’s for the best that she doesn’t give us more. (Snow Queen of my heart/a dark night slowly falls/and if I lose you in shadow/I will ever sing alone.) This passage is fairly typical of the prose:

That Galicians loved money was also common knowledge, and undoubtedly how Rianna’s father had famously risen from street sweeper to become one of the most powerful men in Tamryllin.

It betrays a lack of logical progression: if love of money were the sole prerequisite for the acquisition of money, there would be far more millionaires in this world or any other. Nor are her supposedly lyrical passages better:

Light assaulted her in the vast room; from overhanging lamps with their multiple slender branches, from torches in wall sconces of decorative brass, from wineglasses reflecting light like a thousand flashes of bared teeth. Master Gelvan’s house could rightly be called a palace, its parquet floors spread with intricate Kahishian carpets, wall hangings and paintings on the walls that Lin knew were each in their way special.

The first sentence is quite lovely, with the exception of the final simile (why “bared teeth”?); but the rest of it is clumsy, especially “could rightly be called a palace,” and the final word, “special,” is a complete let-down. It’s true that not every wall hanging needs to be described, but grouping them all under the word “special” diminishes their power as a whole. I’ve read things with worse prose, by far, but it is hardly worthy of praise.

This is not, as I’ve said, a bad book. It doesn’t bear the weight of high expectations well, but if you go in looking for an adventure and a set of likable enough characters, and a fairly interesting plot, you’ll be satisfied. As a debut, however, it’s relatively strong, and I would consider borrowing her next book from the library.

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