Wednesday, December 15, 2010

“The Bone Palace”, by Amanda Downum (Orbit)


The second volume in the Necromancer Chronicles

Death is no stranger in the city of Erisín, but some deaths attract more attention than others.

When a prostitute dies carrying a royal signet ring, Isyllt Iskaldur, necromancer and agent of the Crown, is called to investigate. Her search leads to desecrated tombs below the palace, and the lightless vaults of the vampiric vrykoloi.

But worse things than vampires are plotting in Erisín – a long-dead sorceress is making a bid not only for renewed life but for the throne as well, and Isyllt’s former lover is caught in her schemes.

As a sorcerous plague sweeps the city, Isyllt must decide who she’s prepared to betray – the man she still loves, or the royal family she’s sworn to defend.

I really liked Downum’s debut novel, The Drowning City, with its interesting takes on fantasy tropes, and the author’s keen sense of location and evocative writing style. I particularly like the author’s take on the supernatural, especially when mixed with the politics of the realm she has created. In The Bone Palace, which is set a little after the events of The Drowning City, we are taken back to the capital city, Erisín, into the midst of the aristocracy’s machinations, and also into the dark world below.

“Two years and a half years ago she’d been sent to stir rebellion in the distant port city of Symir. The mission had ended in murder, chaos, and the near-destruction of the city - a success, as far as the Crown was concerned.”

Downum offers a good look at both sides of society: the high class lives and intrigues of the wealthy and aristocratic families (sometimes deadly, but always polite) and the eternal games and schemes of those not occupying the throne; and also the grimmer and tougher world of the poor and lower-classes. Isyllt’s investigation into the death of the prostitute gives us a glimpse of the harsh life of the denizens of ‘the Garden’, Erisin’s pleasure district, and introduces us to the various characters and groups of that world. The author paints a depressing picture of the lives and potential of those born into this world, and Isyllt’s eventual concern for Dahlia is based on a desire to save just one person from a harsh life as a prostitute.

Savedra, the Crown Prince’s mistress, conducts her own investigation into the vrykoloi and how they might be involved with her family. At first it’s not entirely clear how Savedra’s story will tie in to Isyllt’s plotline, but in Part II of the novel, it becomes clear that they are somehow connected. Savedra joins with Ashlin (the Crown Prince’s wife, who shares a surprisingly cordial relationship with her husband’s concubine) to investigate a mysterious, mostly-unknown member of her family. Downum uses this second mystery to take the reader to other locations in the world she has created. The author does a great job of tying the two plot-lines together in the second and third part of the book, making the novel far more satisfying and the plot larger in scope. Indeed, Downum’s pacing of the whole novel is very good – key plot lines are slowly unrolled for us, and the wider picture becomes visible only gradually, keeping us guessing about how the characters will develop and overcome the challenges they must confront and where the story is going.

The death-magic Downum has created for her world is great, and was one of the best elements in the first novel: It’s gruesome, horrific, complex, and strangely captivating at the same time (I love vampires, so this necromantic-magic was bound to pique my interest). There’s also the blood-magic, or ‘haematurgy’ used by vampires and demons, which is also described with skill and originality. Unlike other novels published these days that have an undead flavour, Downum has played with the traditions of the genre, and for that she should be thanked. There are some recognisable influences, but Downum has added plenty of new and unusual twists and elements to her supernatural world to make this feel more original than many recent vampire/undead novels.

The vampires of the synopsis live in catacombs below the city, existing there with the full knowledge of the city’s rulers as part of a long-ago truce of non-disturbance. The vampires can live there as long as they are “discreet”, feeding off indigents and criminals but not the high-born or those connected to them. They’re an interesting, more gothic/horrific take on the breed, though also highly intelligent. They’re quite sinister in their way, but not brutal killers, and not particularly broody... (They remind me of White Wolf’s Nosferatu and Warhammer’s Nechrarchs – more demonic and horrific than the beguiling, beautiful, teenage-seducing vampires of today’s vogue).

There are occasional, slower passages that don’t quite have the same polish and assurance as the majority of the rest of the novel, but on the whole The Bone Palace is better than The Drowning City. Downum’s prose flows well, with excellent description and atmospheric narrative – in fact, the author’s gift for evoking atmosphere is both one of her greatest strengths, and also what can cause those slower moments I mentioned above (when the balance isn’t quite right). She could be described as a less-confident Anne Rice, in this respect. In terms of the characterisation in the novel, I noticed a distinct lack of cliché and over-emoting, which kept the characters and their relationships interesting and realistic. I found myself hooked by the story, and sunk into the plot easily and quickly each time I picked up the book. If I hadn’t been so busy this past week, I have no doubt I would have finished this in just a couple of long, into-the-wee-hours sittings.

While I really liked The Drowning City, I got sucked into the story of this second novel much quicker. Downum’s writing is more assured, her characterisation more interesting and developed, and the plot is as interesting and well-executed as the debut.

Horror, fantasy and detective elements are woven together skilfully to make this a very enjoyable and original read. Amanda Downum is definitely one of the best new authors writing in fantasy, and is an author to watch. If you like your fantasy dark and gothic, with some interesting new takes on some classic fantasy tropes, this is a highly recommended must-read.

For fans of: Gail Z Martin, Anne Rice, Brent Weeks, Steven Saville, CL Werner, Jack Yeovil, Joe Abercrombie

[The third novel in the series, I think, will be titled The Kingdoms of Dust]

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