Tuesday, March 20, 2012

“Kingdoms of Dust” by Amanda Downum (Orbit)


The Third Necromancer Chronicle

With her master dead and her oaths foresworn, necromancer and spy Isyllt Iskaldur finds herself in exile.

Hounded by assassins, she seeks asylum in Assar, the empire she so recently worked to undermine. There, warlords threaten the Empire’s fragile peace, and the empress is beset by enemies within the court. Even worse, darkness stirs in the deep desert. Ancient spirits are waking that could destroy Assar faster than any army.

Isyllt must travel into the heart of the desert to lay the darkness there to rest once more. But first she must stop an order of mages that will do anything to keep the Empire safe – even raze it to dust.

I really enjoyed Downum’s first two Necromancer Chronicles novels, so I had high hopes for this third instalment. It mostly met my expectations, and despite one niggle, was a very strong novel – exhibiting the same strengths that helped elevate the author’s first two novels above the herd. Gothic and mysterious, this is a series to savour.

A number of different factions are attempting to win Isyllt Iskaldur’s support for and aid in their various schemes and agendas. Everyone seems to have an idea of how Isyllt could be used, her skills deployed to suit their needs, and some of the actors don’t seem too fussed with exerting pressure in less-than-pleasant ways.

What stands out for me with every one of Amanda Downum’s novels is the quality and feel of her prose. The author is able to convey such great atmosphere with her writing. Her description of the world’s gothic aesthetic is wonderful. Sometimes that description can get away from her a little, which slows down the already unhurried pace. Mostly, however, Downum’s prose has a similarly evocative feel to some of Anne Rice’s best writing. The sense of place and atmosphere is skilfully evoked, and a pleasure to read.

The magic system of this world is wonderfully dark and sinister – from Isyllt’s necromancy to Melantha’s tenebrous magic (the ability to manipulate darkness and to move through shadows as she wishes), Downum is able to add yet more layers of gothic atmosphere to her story.

I must admit that I had slightly more re-entry issues than I did with the previous novel – there are a few more references to the first book, which I read a long time ago. Therefore, it took a little longer than I expected to really get sucked into the story. That didn’t stop the first quarter of the novel from being intriguing and engaging, however. I was also a little frustrated with the time it took to get to the events in the final paragraph of the synopsis – Isyllt et al don’t set out into the desert until the third part of the novel (Chapter 20, p.247). None of Downum’s novels are fast-paced, it’s true, but I had hoped things would have become a little more streamlined by now.

The thing is, though, that despite being mildly frustrated by this, I didn’t really mind – Downum’s world and characters are beautifully rendered and brought to life on the page. Could it have been brisker-paced? Probably, but only at the risk of ruining the overall feel of the world.

Ultimately, this is a character study. It’s about love, family, loneliness, and a search for belonging. Most of the characters in this novel are separated from their companions and countrymen for one reason or another: Isyllt’s necromancy marks her as “unclean” in many places, and her world was turned upside down at the end of The Bone Palace; Asheris is an outcast jinn, struggling to hide his true nature in a city where every prayer causes him pain; Adam is recovering from a long, brutal incarceration; while Moth is trying to find her place in the world. Together, they form an interesting, sympathetic group.

The Kingdoms of Dust is a satisfying conclusion to this gothic, dark and original series. It won’t suit everyone’s tastes, but I think Downum has written a great fantasy to savour. Certainly recommended.

For Fans of: Mazarkis Williams, Teresa Frohock, Brent Weeks, Jon Courtenay-Grimwood, Anne Rice

Also on CR: Interview with Amanda Downum

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