Music has been used an untold number of times in fantasy, both as part of the backdrop and as a central component of the plot. And there's a very good reason for that perpetual fascination: Music is, in its own way, a form of magic. Ilana C. Myer takes that idea to a compelling extreme in Last Song Before Night. Her debut novel is set in an invented, pseudo-medieval world where musicians play a vital role in culture — although the magic once summoned by their music has long been lost.
Tamryllin is a glittering, southern city full of cosmopolitan pageantry; Lin is in exile from the cold northern lands, a disgraced noble who wishes to join the ranks of the poets — that is, the singing, harp-plucking songwriters who hold social and ceremonial power in the city. The problem is, the profession's Academy bars women from becoming poets — and Lin's increasingly perilous quest to recover music's lost magic gets tangled up in the intricate machinations of merchants, politicians, relatives, lovers and an innocent young woman named Rianna whose sheltered life is destined to be ripped apart.
Myer's depiction of Tamryllin and the land it inhabits is shadowy and lush, a tapestry of gossamer wonders as well as theocratic oppression and brutality. But the core of Last Song's strength is its characters. Bound by enmities, rivalries, lust, sacrifices and ancient tragedies, the novel's sizable cast forms a dizzying chemistry. Even when the book dwells on its elaborate, Regency-romance web of seductions and star-crossed suitors — which Myer weds to her setting with a deft, sure hand — that game of musical beds has haunting, profound consequences. The villains, with Lin's treacherous, predatory brother Rayen being a particularly juicy example, are painted in broad strokes, but there's plenty of nuance, dimension and empathy to Myer's timeless myth-spinning.
If there's one music-themed fantasy novel that Last Song Before Night owes a debt to, it's A Song for Arbonne, Guy Gavriel Kay's 1992 book that traffics in a vaguely similar High Medieval setting, north-south political conflicts, religious clashes and the role of the troubadour in culture — right down to a female musician struggling to be heard in a male-dominated field. But Last Song Before Night is no retread. Instead it's an intoxicating mix of the familiar and the fresh, from the Academy that puts poetry at odds with politics to the exploration of cultural misogyny that's both otherworldly and frighteningly recognizable.
Not every theme that's introduced in the book winds up getting its due; at points in Last Song, it seems that Myer is setting herself up to make a deep point about the nature of metaphor, and the way it relates to both music and magic. But those dots are never satisfyingly connected. And while a trinity of gods — male and female — is mentioned by name throughout the book, they wind up being more window dressing than anything else, despite the fact that Last Song tackles issues of both gender and religion. The book's subtlety sometimes works against it; luckily its breathtaking, beautifully orchestrated sense of adventure and mystery drowns out the occasional off-note. Last Song Before Night is about music, but it's also a work of music itself: Lyrical, dynamic, and winningly melodic.
Jason Heller is a senior writer atThe A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.