Ilana C. Myer’s Last Song Before Night is, in the most simplistic reduction, a quest fantasy, set in the rich, complex pseudo-medieval society of Eivar where poets and seers are trained in a special academy. Once, long ago, poets were also enchanters, but their abilities made them dangerous and feared when misuse of their gift caused a dreaded plague. Now the Crown via the office of Court Poet determines what songs the poets may sing—and who may be a poet. Women, we learn, are not poets or musicians, and therefore, unwelcome at the academy.
Kimbralin Amaristoth, daughter of a Northern family so cruel that she has fled, abandoning a life of wealth and ease to pursue her gift for music and poetry. She has come to the city of Tamryllin, hoping to win the poetic competition at the Midsummer festival. A fugitive hiding from her family, she wants nothing more than to compose and perform. Instead, she must unravel the why and how of the lost enchantments of poets in order to curtail the return of the deadly Red Death, the plague that once before brought devastation to all of Eivar.
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Last Song Before Night is a debut novel, though it doesn’t read like one. In Last Song Before Night, Myer skillfully subverts the conventional tropes of quest-based heroic fantasy. The aristocratic milieu of the city of Tamryllin, and the multi-generational nature of aristocratic plots and power, calls to mind Kushner’s Riverside tales, or Monette’s city of Mélusine. Yet Myer’s Eivar is neither Riverside or Mélusine. Though the world-building is deft, what makes this book standout are the well-crafted prose, the extraordinary artistry of Myer’s characters, and her narrative skill. She brings together multiple narrative threads successfully, while never losing sight of her character’s individual stories.
This story is complete, but there’s enough world-building here to suggest we may be lucky to see more of Eivar.