Friday, February 27, 2009

[Lisa’s Take] A Magic of Twilight (S. L. Farrell)

I wasn’t overly impressed by the first S. L. Farrell book I reviewed, so I haven’t been going out of my way to pursue his work. But a couple of weeks back I found myself on a business trip having grossly underestimated the number of books I needed to keep me entertained, so I had to hit the airport bookstore (which are hardly known for their impressive fantasy selection). Pickins’ were slim, so I went with an author that I knew would probably be at least marginally entertaining, and ended up with A Magic of Twilight.

A Magic of Twilight reads a lot like something by Jennifer Fallon, which is to say that it’s solid political fantasy with good characterizations and plenty of drama, betrayal, and intrigue. The setup is pretty classic for this sub-genre: there are POV characters, a magic system, governmental factions at odds, strong but aging monarchs, and persecuted minorities. Hmm. I’m making a lot of lists, which never codes well for the overall tone of my review. Let me skip to some details.

Characters, delicious characters! First and foremost, I have a question. What is it with S. L. Farrell and sexually abused young girls? Sorry, I just had to put that out there – both books I’ve read by him have involved exploitative sex, which seems an odd recurring them. Anyway, glib questions aside, there was good and bad to be had in regards to the characters in A Magic of Twilight. My biggest complaint is that while there were a whole handful of PoV characters, only one or two of them really felt all that real. Even though we were inside a lot of different heads, the tone and emotions didn’t change very much. The only truly distinct voices where Dhosti and Ana (and later the commandant), which is a shame since they all had so much potential.

The other big character gripe I had is that… hmm. How to express this. I feel like the author wanted to create “gray” characters, rather than ones that were distinctly black and white, good and evil. This worked out ok with one or two characters, but with some of them it just made them seem wishy-washy or underdeveloped. I feel like Farrell needed to establish a stronger character personality baseline before he tried to muddy the waters with ambiguity. Still – all of that said, the characters managed to be interesting and engaging. I was emotionally invested in their wellbeing, and I found myself picking rather unexpected favorites towards the end of the book.

The story itself was quite good, though for the most part it can be codified down into major political fantasy archetypes. Regardless, it was still entertaining, and save for a lull in the middle it moved along quickly. There was one particularly neat aspect: I felt like most books would have stretched the first half of the book longer, and ended it at the major plot turning point near the middle of the book. AMoT kept that first half more condensed instead, and moved along from said Big Plot Point into a whole second chunk of story. It was kind of cool, and definitely shook up what I expect from the standard “trilogy” breakdown. I’m really interested to see where book 2 goes.

I do have one serious gripe about the plot: without being too revealing, the “big twist” at the end put a sour note on the entire book for me. I felt like it broke a couple of characterizations, lacked motivation, and was included more as a way to make the reader want book 2, than as a well considered story progression. Honestly if not for the last few pages the tone of this review would have been much more positive overall – but finishing that way put me in a grumpy place.

Regardless, for all of the negatives I found to harp on, I did enjoy A Magic of Twilight. I may not run out and buy the sequel immediately, but I’ll be looking to it to tide me over until the next Jennifer Fallon book makes it to US shores.

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