Thursday, 28 June 2012

'The Kingdoms of Dust' - Amanda Downum (Orbit)

It was way back in the murky depths of 2009 that I picked up 'The Drowning City' (based on a heady mixture of cool title, intriguing blurb and some glorious cover art). Unfortunately, what was inside the book (you know, all the stuff that really matters...) didn't match up to what was on the outside... You can read my full review Here or, if you really don't want to, have a couple of quotes here that sum things up,

'I had real trouble engaging with the characters in this book, possibly because any character development came across as pre-determined rather than as a result of reacting to the situations they were facing.'

'I don’t know about you but sometimes it feels like I could pull any book off my shelf and read about layers of intrigue and a mission that must be resolved. A book has to be pretty special to pull that trick off these days and ‘The Drowning City’ didn’t quite cut it.'

‘The Drowning City’ ended up being a little disappointing but there was enough there to suggest that any further books could be worth a look. I’ll see how it goes...'

Well, the plan was to check out further books, it didn't quite work like that. 'The Bone Palace' looked like just my kind of thing but a whole load of things stopped me from picking it up (along with a whole load of other books, the last two years have been mad) and I lost track of the series altogther. Until 'The Kingdoms of Dust' appeared.

The one thing that really grabbed me about 'The Drowning City' was the world building. 'Alive and vibrant' were the words that I used in the original review and if I could rewrite it I'd add the word 'lush' to that description. I wanted more of that and I was also curious to see how Isyllt's story eventually played out. No choice then but to pick up 'The Kingdoms of Dust' and see what happened....

Another copied and pasted blurb for you,

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.

Have you ever read a series and wished that the last book in the series had actually been the first? Not literally, that would really confuse the plot, I guess I'm talking more in terms of energy, plot and characters. As far as that goes, I really wish that 'The Kingdoms of Dust' had been the book that kicked things off here.

That strong worldbuilding is on display again; this time taking in the desert cities of Assar (both well known and those that are secret). You can really feel the heat in the air, and the dust under your feet, in these places (I'd love to see some of the stuff that's only hinted at, like the home of the Djinn) and it's such an effective way of grounding the reader in the story that is to follow.

And what a story it is! Reading 'The Kingdoms of Dust' made me re-evaluate a lot of what I'd read in 'The Drowning City' as it becomes clear that Downum has been playing a long game here. A lot of stuff comes to light (or fruition) here where you see it and think, 'so that was what was going on in the first book...' Downum has basically written something pretty deep here that will surprise you with its complexity; those who have stuck with the series will be rewarded by the end (I should have stuck with the series). If you factor in all the magic, sword fights and so on you have a book that is immediately engaging when you pick it up. A quick word on the action... It's not understated but it's never overdone either; Downum gets the balance just right and the reader gets a smooth ride, through the plot, as a result.

It's a shame then that the characters don't quite match up to the promise of everything else. Don't get me wrong. 'The Kingdoms of Dust' makes big strides away from the issues that I had with 'The Drowning City'. Isyllt and the rest of the cast are very much shaping their own stories here instead of just being put in place and aimed at an ending. 'The Kingdoms of Dust' is very much ' tale of crossroads' for its characters; no-one has roots anymore and everyone has a decision to make about where their life goes next. This is a great approach in terms of shaping the story but I was left wondering if Downum shied away from a few tough decisions of her own when tying up loose ends...
Does a character deserve a happy ending if they've had a rough ride for several books? Or should their past not allow them that easy way out? That's a tough one to answer (I think you can only really answer that on a case by case basis...) but, without giving too much away, Downum's ending suggested that she had a little sympathy for some characters and wanted to give them a break. That's her choice but this approach didn't quite click for me.

Apart from that though, 'The Kingdoms of Dust' was a great read and a fine way to round off the trilogy. I have a feeling that we won't be seeing any more of Isyllt Iskaldur (although I'm happy to be proved wrong) but I hope that Amanda Downum sticks around in this world she has created and gives us more stories; I think there are some good ones waiting to be told. For now though, I'm off to see if I still have my old copy of 'The Bone Palace'...

Eight and a Half out of Ten


Heloise said...

I loved the whole trilogy myself, I think it is one of the best fantasy debut to come out in recent years. The Bone Palace is actually my favourite among them where I think Amanda Downum manages to strike the perfect balance between world building, plot and characterization - I'd definitely recommend to not miss out on that one.
Apparently, there are plans for a fourth Necromancer novel but - at least that's the last thing I've heard - she does not have a publisher for that. In any case, I'm hoping to read more from her.

Elfy said...

I had very similar reactions to you with The Drowning City, but the world building in that was enough to make me want to read on. I'll have to see if I can still find The Bone Palace based on this news.