Last Song Before Night comes so close to being a brilliant debut it nearly brings me to tears. Ilana Myer lures you into her extravagantly mounted epic with the promise of a tale of a rebellion inspired by poetry and led by musicians. But what emerges is just another tropey quest novel, with stock heroes and villains, and a curious lack of conviction supporting its feminist subtext.
Our heroine is Kimbralin — or just Lin — Amaristoth, daughter of an aristocratic household, who has fled her family's abuses and come to the marbled and pillared city of Tamryllin. Here, despite strict Academic rules limiting the vocations of music and poetry to men, Lin pursues her musical ambitions. Ages past, music was a powerful form of spellcasting, but after blood magic corrupted the practice and spread a fearsome plague, the Red Death, music was stripped of its magical essence and poets were required to have all their songs approved by the king's closest advisor, the Court Poet.
The story begins as Lin and her performing partner prepare to enter a song contest to be held at the home of a wealthy merchant, to be judged by the King and the Court Poet, Nickon Gerrard. To everyone's surprise, the party is crashed by Valanir Ocune, one of the most famed poets in all the land. Unlike his bitter rival Gerrard, Ocune has avoided the public eye, preferring to disappear on lengthy travels abroad. Ocune scandalizes the gathering by performing a seditious song defying the crown's control over musicians and poets and urging them to seek "the Path" that will restore the lost enchantments.
Meeting her earlier that evening, Ocune revealed to Lin that the Red Plague is returning, and that in his own travels, visions revealed to him that Lin will have a crucial role to play in discovering the Path and stopping the spread of evil. Thus, the Obi-Wan/Luke (or Gandalf/Frodo, if you prefer) mentor relationship between Ocune and Lin is established. Lin is joined in her quest by fellow musician Darien Aldemoor, a dashing and wildly popular Academy student who had every expectation of winning the contest (and hopefully the hand of the merchant's daughter, Rianna). But Darien's own partner, Marlen, has thrown him under the bus in order to curry favor with Gerrard.
If Valanir Ocune is Obi-Wan, it will come as no surprise to you that Gerrard is Vader, himself the very blood magician responsible for the resurgance of the plague. (This isn't exactly a massive spoiler.) Gerrard pulls out all stops to hinder Lin and Darien, but really, the story gets to them before he does. Once the action shifts from the pageantry of Tamryllin to a series of boilerplate epic fantasy rural towns and rough taverns, the story is simply ticking off boxes.
The city of Tamryllin is vividly realized, especially in nighttime street scenes where the lights and sounds of a festival seem to come alive in your mind. Myer's characters, for the most part, are all quite likable. Likable, however, doesn't necessarily translate to deep. Lin's development is especially frustrating, because she is given the thinnest basis for her role as Chosen One archetype. It's just Ocune's vision, whatever that was. It is disappointing, to put it mildly, to see a female protagonist having to lean so heavilt upon the instructions and personal sacrifices of male characters in order to fulfill her own destiny. Valanir Ocune spends much of the first two-thirds of the story offstage somewhere — curious, considering how life-or-death we're told the quest for the Path is — but once the going gets tough for Lin, he's there to help. Also, for a book that intends for its villains' villainy to reflect upon the theme of the general oppression of women, it's a pity to see that pushed to the back burner in favor of an off-the-shelf good-vs-evil epic fantasy clinax.
Myer's villains fare even worse. Nickon Gerrard is straight-up Dark Lord Genericus. As for Rayen Amaristoth, Lin's abusive, sociopathically emo brother, well, if your bad guy's defining résumé item is that he beats women, that is less character development than button-mashing. Also, Marlen's rash greed, which led him to betray his close friend, only to find that his rise in court stature is temporary, hollow, and came at the expense of what little respect anyone might have had for him, is all fairly obvious in its execution.
There's another featured supporting character, Marilla, whose prominence in the story I'm still trying to puzzle out. A "shameless hussy" type who is Marlen's lover and likes rough trade in the boudoir (the result, apparently, of childhood abuse, a cause/effect thing that I must admit earns Myer a bit of side-eye), she seems to have no relevance or role to play at all in the main questline apart from coming to terms with her past and achieving redemption. Her character is such a mashup of stereotypes that it takes a while to get a fix on which one is the right one. It took me over half the book to realize she was not, in fact, a prostitute, but simply a "fallen" woman. She's certainly a colorful character, don't get me wrong. But why give her subplot such weight?
There are many characters vying for your attention here, but Last Song Before Night doesn't quite have the solidity of narrative to support all these viewpoints and subplots. And so there are pacing problems, as so many threaded storylines compete for equal time. It all would have felt more focused if Lin's viewpoint had been stronger, and centered.
Allow me to end this review with some positives. It's impossible not to see the raw talent in Ilana Myer. She makes her characters appealing, which will only improve once she gets past her inclination to slot them into clichéd roles. (In an unintentionally funny moment which nonetheless feels entirely real, Darien yells at Ocune in aggravation "Fuck you, Seer!") And in Tamryllin, she's created the sort of city that made me wish I could have spent more time there, that I could have breathed in the atmosphere of its mansions and markets and streets. Myer is a writer going places, and while Last Song Before Night sounds a few too many wrong notes to work as well as it should, I suspect it won't be long before she delivers truly symphonic fantasy.