Lots of stories start with a corpse--Shadows of Self starts with a room full. Readers familiar with Brandon Sanderson’s colorful magic, fun characters, and exciting action won’t be let down by the latest in his Mistborn world—it is all that and more. Though his characters read a touch flat, and the society he creates is not as nuanced as real life, the book has some top-notch plot twists, and a little more philosophical meat than your average fantasy tale.
Shadows of Self is essentially CSI with magic—the hunt for a mad(wo)man intent on destroying the city through a series of calculated murders, dividing the city apart along old lines of class, religion and nobility. The tension ratchets up when clues left by the murderer (a shapeshifter) reveal intimate knowledge of double-magicked vigilante main Waxillium, pushing him to question his convictions even as those convictions pull him farther into revelation and danger. Readable alone, the book has fun nods to its four predecessors and introduces important new twists to the world.
The best part of Shadows of Self is the final revelation sequence—totally unexpected, answering long-nagging questions and raising more, there are moments on a level with Fight Club, changing your understanding of everything that's happened. It’s also emotionally punchy—in a book where I can’t quite take any of the characters seriously, it still hit me in the gut, and left me (and the main character) in just the kind of cathartic wreck we love with good writing.
That’s not to say it’s perfect. Aside from that moment of pathos, the characters read more like comic book heroes than real people—a touch too noble, too humorous, or too flat to strike at the heart of human nature. The book’s events transform none of them save for Waxillium, and even his arc feels incomplete at novel’s end—which may be why Sanderson wrote the sequel immediately after (to be released January 2016). Knowing him, this was all likely necessary to set us up for even bigger pay-offs in the coming books.
The plot also depends on a working-class uprising that feels a little too easy. Whether Sanderson didn’t want to get into messy bourgeous/proletariat issues, or didn’t have time in an uncharacteristically-snappy 130,000 word novel, or just failed to pull it off, the plot depends on us buying that the threat is real. I didn’t. It also fell into the madman-mastermind trap you might recognize from The Dark Knight, in which a mentally unstable villain somehow coordinates a large and well-trained group of henchmen behind the scenes while battling the hero onscreen.
Still, the world is imaginative enough and the characters fun enough to each get 2.5 out of 3 stars. The book also has some fun quirks, like self-deprecating in-world broadsheets and sexual innuendos shocking for normally-clean-rating Sanderson. Better yet, the magico-historical setup lets him explore theological issues that leave us with a little more value than just a fun story. In short, a well-written and recommended read—just what we expect from one of the best-selling authors in fantasy.
Magic has left the world, save for a few dusty scrolls and the traditions of bards who were once magicians. Now an ancient evil has come to threaten the land, unless an unlikely heroine can revive the old ways…
Sound familiar? It is—Ilana C. Myer’s Last Song Before Night is a solid read, but not for its unique magic (see Brandon Sanderson), its intricate politics (see George RR Martin) or its fantastic world setting (see Daniel Abraham).
What shines in the book is the characters. Starting in all states of suffering and glory, falling in and out of love, betraying best friends and revealing dark pasts, Myer’s characters get drug through hell and back (or left there), and we love them the whole way. Though they are saved from death once too often to believe they are actually in danger, Myer’s touch for poignant observation and the ungraceful reality of humankind are the saving grace of the book. She’s also a top-notch wordsmith, with an attention to sensory details, an easy rhythm, and a clarity of prose that draws you through the book.
It isn’t, however, enough to make this a top-notch novel. Her world feels undetailed, a bland sort of Europe with an undeveloped-but-dangerous Orient to the east, and the promise of a magic system based on music and wielded by bards isn’t paid off in the prose. Instead, though the plot depends on magical elements, we never really understand how it works, and so important conflicts in the book (and teleportation and character revelations) lose their punch. In place of sudden but inevitable plot twists, the magic just… sort of happens as needed, and in the last quarter of the book it’s hard to understand where the characters are, whether they’re really in danger, and what’s at stake, because we don’t know the rules they are playing by.
That’s not to say the story isn’t fun—with lots of witty banter, some heartfelt pathos, and a Shakespearean knot of characters that end up in strange company and stranger loves, we at no point wanted to walk away from the book. It just didn’t have the deep worldbuilding or tight plotting of a first-rate novel, nor any of those moments that made us want to stand up and shout.
That’s why, though Myer’s prose is rich and her characters wonderful, we’re giving Last Song Before Night six and a half stars out of ten—because the plot felt forced and it lacked the originality of setting and magic that we crave in fantasy. Still, for those seeking a lighter read with witty and loveable characters, a nice companion on a long flight or a holiday weekend, Last Song Before Night won’t let you down.