Last Song Before Night by Ilana C. Myer is a masterful fantasy story. The plot revolves around bringing lost magic back into the world to counter a supernatural threat — but even more around the fates of the characters, who are so achingly real that the reader has every reason to care about them.
Even before the main conflict is introduced, the story weaves a situation rich in conflict and potential just by introducing the setting and characters. The story starts in the city of Tamryllin in the days before the Midsummer Fair, in which Poets — musicians — compete for the Silver Branch in front of the king and everyone else. The Poets once held political power and wielded magic with their music, but that time has long since passed, and they are now subservient to the king, though his Court Poet still has great personal power. Still, the contest for the Silver Branch is a unique opportunity for a Poet’s career.
Several characters’ fates have become entwined in the upcoming contest. Lin, the main protagonist, is seeking to enter the contest with a man named Leander, trying the impossible since women are not even supposed to be allowed to be trained as Poets. She’s also running away from a dark past that could very concretely catch up to her. Another entrant is the charismatic Darien, a favourite to win and a young scoundrel who’s found himself falling genuinely in love and intends to use the victory to gain status and enable him to propose to his upper-class beloved. He’s to perform with his best friend Marlen, of a similar scoundrelry disposition but far darker under the surface. The object of Darien’s affections is Rianna, an inexperienced young woman who looks very forward to being with him but is also dealing with the guilt of keeping this secret from her childhood friend Ned — an awkward young man she’s engaged to by arrangement between their families, whom she cares about as a friend but who’s destined to become an unhappy footnote in her love story with Darien.
This is not even all the relevant characters, yet it’s already enough plot tension to carry for a hundred pages, even without the occult serial killer that I haven’t mentioned. But of course there’s a twist. Events take an entirely new turn before even the supposedly pivotal contest. At a ball where the Poets are performing in front of distinguished guests up to the king himself, a surprise performer whose very name causes ripples shows that, magic or no, music can still have a great deal of power, and changes the lives of those present and upsets the political situation with one song.
This opens up the main plot that the protagonists eventually wind up following. Though few in Tamryllin yet know, the plague known as the Red Death is spreading across the country and approaching the city. It can only mean one thing: someone is practising blood divination, grasping for the lost power of magic through the darkest means. Unfortunately, that someone is too powerful to easily expose or oppose. Some of the protagonists soon become hunted as they set out on the quest to find the lost Path and recover the magic of the Poets. Others follow their own intertwined paths, no less intense.
The beginning of the story is a captivating page-turner of winding threads, set in a fictional city that has its own tangible twilight atmosphere. The pace is steady and eventful, introducing one twist after another, never lagging. However, this is nothing compared to reading the middle for the first time — written with blood from a quickly beating heart, it left me no choice but to read on and on to find out what happened to the characters I already cared so much about, poised on a knife-edge the whole time, not only physically in danger but in spiritual and moral peril as well, with truly everything at stake. This goes on almost to the end and the satisfying conclusion.
The characters are obviously a strength of the story. As another reviewer pointed out, they are also more than they appear to be — or, at least in one case, appear to be more than they are, which is just as interesting done in moderation. More than anything, they are women and men trying to find their place in a world that opposes them at every step. This book beats much of the fantasy genre for the depth of character but also much of “literary fiction” in that the characters actually do something and achieve things instead of just sitting there being deep and totally ineffectual for a few hundred pages. (Don’t read me as being careless with the stereotypes I just used; “much of” isn’t “all” or even “most”.)
This also means that the book has strong female characters (as well as male). There’s no sense of “let’s make some strong female characters.” Rather, the author has clearly been interested in and committed to writing the story of these characters, and in writing them from their own fully developed point of view. (It’s no wonder we can find her advocating the same in an article.) If everyone writing fiction just thought like this, there’d be no need to talk about it. They don’t, though, so I mention it. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, read the previous link, and maybe the one before it too.)
The world-building works, too, and the world feels realistic. I would usually get a pretty clear mental picture of each location — I am not even sure how this was achieved, but I should probably examine that at some point to benefit my own writing. The fantasy element of magic and music is frankly not that interesting in itself and seems a bit vaguely conceived, but that’s barely a problem. It’s what’s done with it and in search of it that’s important.
A central theme in this story is music, or rather, art on the whole, represented by music, largely from the artist’s point of view. The book itself is a good example of what art can be and do. In my mind, it ranks just below the very best I have ever read.