Reviews: ‘Last Song Before Night’ by Ilana C. Myer and ‘Updraft’ by Fran Wilde

UpdraftOn the surface there is almost nothing to compare between Last Song Before Night by Ilana C. Myer and Updraft by Fran Wilde. Last Song Before Night is a very generic fantasy world with a seemingly unique hook. Magic in the form of poetry has been made mostly impotent and after a string of murders a small group works to bring back the magic against the wishes of the royal poet who still seems to control it. With the power of language right at the front this had potential to be a fantasy with something to say. Updraft on the other hand is a world I have never seen before; living towers growing high above the clouds house the remnants of humanity. With people relying on gliders for travel and trial by (air) combat one could rightfully expect this to be an action adventure with a bit of weird.

In both cases my expectations were wrong; once for the better and the other, unfortunately, not. So why am I comparing these two books?

Let me lay down a promotional quote for one of these books.

‘Themes of censorship, patriarchy, feminism, and the power of art as an engine for social change run throughout…’

Now to be fair I realize the author has nothing to do with these quotes and more than once I have seen books get a bad shake from their promotional material. But in this case I think the quote is quite favorable for the book in question; certainly I do believe that there was a general aim to look at censorship, patriarchy, etc in the book in question. I compare these two books because while the above quote was meant to promote Last Song Before Night I think it was given to the wrong book.

Yes it is Updraft that surprised me, a much deeper book than the high flying (catch that pun?) premise put out front. In this very solid debut we see a land where language, and especially songs, can be used to control the populous. Those truly in power have very different versions of the songs being used to teach.  They also control their secrets religiously. Yet in this sky based world there is the illusion of fairness to the system of oppression, in part because the oppressors have some real justifications for what they do. In fact they believe whole heartedly what they do is for the best. And so trial by combat is allowed; with challengers having the chance to take on the guardians who control them. But even here the illusion is easily broken; silence is a must and the trials themselves are of course questionable in their credibility.

So Updraft looks at censorship in some depth. It also looks at ‘art as an engine for social change.’ Living is sky cities paper is obviously not a possibility and as such writing is at a premium. Small pieces of carved bone, with a combination of symbolism and art, is one of the driving catalyst that moves things forward. And while it is hard as a cis male to make any claims to know feminism I would humbly proclaim that a land where an ingrained patriarchy is not present (evidenced by the fact that the young protagonists’ gender is never a hindrance) is a good example of breaking from some common fantasy pitfalls that promote a patriarchal worldview.

‘Themes of censorship, patriarchy, feminism, and the power of art as an engine for social change run throughout…’

On the other hand I read Last Song Before Night. It had a very generic setting seen often in Last Song Before Nightfantasy; that of royals, nobles behaving badly, and an ingrained patriarchy that leaves nothing for the women outside of drudgery (and prostitution or course). To rise above this bland background it was a book that needed a strong hook. And that hook was supposed to be poetry as magic. It pulled me in, I love the thought of a book looking into the power or language in a new way. Language is powerful, magical language should be even better. Unfortunately the lost magic of poetry was treated as nothing more than a lost magic. The poetry, and the language of it, it didn’t matter at all; it could have been any generic lost relic that was causing magic to fail and had the same effect within this story. With that realization the censorship being enforced by the Court Poet was no longer a complex act; it was just an evil power grab. There was no subtlety, no complexity, no reason to really get interested.

Once the realization came that there was no subtle play looking into censorship or the power of language the whole book unraveled for me. Because the lack of subtlety became a theme throughout. The most evil poet in the land is evil. The main character is fighting patriarchy… kind of. Really she is getting away with a little bit that other women can’t because of some lucky influence. When she does make a breakthrough it is unconvincing; a powerful man says it is OK so suddenly she is a trailblazer. A secondary villain is a stock bad guy; beats women, kills for fun, and plays cruel games of seduction. Only a couple of characters had any depth that allowed them to seem human i.e. make and learn from mistakes.

The problem was not that Last Song Before Night was badly written rather that it never holds up to its promise. It is perfectly readable, and while I am not a fan of dreamland like dimensions used to wrap things up I would say it is solidly plotted throughout. It just lacked any kind of depth and wasn’t the type of book trying to overcome that shortcoming with action. This made it an easy to read but never engaging story. It was a book that I was looking forward to ending, which probably sums up my feelings better than anything else.

Compare to Updraft and the difference is night and day. I said Updraft has surprising depth but it also had a great amount of action. It was easy to read and ultra-captivating; mixing death defying acts of flight with some real soul. It succeeds in mixing its pace up so as never to overload the reader. And I was racing to the final page not to get it over with but because I really had to know how it would all end.

Two books, nothing at all alike outside of seemingly having some similar themes to explore. I wish I could have loved them both but I am very glad to have read Updraft.

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