When we last visited Ilana C. Myer’s gorgeous fantasy world of poetry, music, and magic, we weren’t sure when or if we’d ever return. Last Song Before Night, Myer’s debut, introduced the Kingdom of Eivar and the plucky girl poet, Lin, who might yet save it from ruin. Last Song is lyrical and lovely—a light and lithe narrative dance that seems almost entirely self-contained.
As it turns out, there is yet more to see. Fire Dance, Myer’s second novel, tells a standalone story but builds on the world, the characters, and the magic of its predecessor, expanding the map in every direction with a tale that feels as timely as it does timeless.
It’s possible to savor this world-hopping adventure first—Lin is back, driving the action, but the story isn’t necessarily about her—though by doing so, you’ll rob yourself of some of the intricacies of the magical system, and miss out on some of the nuances of the characters who triumphed and suffered through it.
In these novels, magic lives in songs and in poetry. In Last Song, Eivar’s poets regained some of the power that had waned over time. It is a quest narrative that sets a stage, fights a battle, tests its characters, and finds its victories marred by losses.
Fire Dance opens within that familiar framework, among Eivar’s world of poets, both at the Academy, where expert Seer Valanir Ocune serves as a court liaison, and at the seat of the throne, where Lady Lin Amaristoth now wields power as Court Poet. But there are mysteries afoot, and soon enough, they take the story far into new territory.
Dark magic brews in the neighboring Kahishi kingdom, beset by bizarre and ferocious attacks on nearby villages. As Lin and her advisors work to navigate complex court politics of Kahishian royalty (and loyalty), the attacks escalate, and blame falls to the titular Fire Dancers, an enigmatic sect with little love for the current dynasty.
Running parallel to this dangerous foreign expedition is an increasingly volatile situation at the Academy in Eivar, where a High Master has died suddenly and, perhaps, suspiciously. The unexpected power vacuum allows for the entrance of a new Archmaster, whose charisma is his only clear-cut attribute.
These twin mysteries unfold deliberately and delicately, their axes spinning ever closer through alternating viewpoints and tightly constructed plotting. As in Last Song Before Night, Myer’s writing here creates its own magic, with evocative prose that deftly avoids becoming too flowery for its subjects.
While Myer’s writing is lush, the world she builds with it is often stark. The setting of Fire Dance is rife with invention (cosmic observatories, portal travel, grand palaces, and parades!), but it can be a grim place. Like Last Song, this novel does not shy away from gore, made all the starker by its juxtaposition with the ethereal beauty of the world and its poetic magic.
Sometimes, it seems, magic and its consequences are ugly; the serenity and surface-level appeal of Eivar (and now Kahishi) belie an inner rot of one sort or another, whether loose ends left to unravel, or characters who uncover ugly cultural truths. Institutional corruption, distrust and hostility between nations and peoples, the struggle against gender norms, the seesaw of “might” vs. “right”—it’s all here, laid bare.
The term “escapism” is often used to diminish fantasy as genre, to limit its power. Myer has given us escapist fantasy to be sure; I, for one, would gladly slip out of this world and into the Way of Booksellers, or enjoy the wine fountains of the Festival of Nitzan. But more often, fantasy becomes used a playground in which all our real-world ailments and anxieties can run free, everyday problems intensified or resolved by enchantment. And Fire Dance does that too, to dazzling degree.
[Editor’s note: Ilana C. Myer is also a contributor to the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog.]