The Republic of Itreya is in chaos. Mia Corvere has assassinated Cardinal Duomo and rumors of Consul Scaeva’s death ripple through the street of Godsgrave like wildfire. But buried beneath those same streets, deep in the ancient city’s bones, lies a secret that will change the Republic forever.
Mia and her brother Jonnen must journey through the depths of the ancient metropolis. Their quest will take them through the Godsgrave underdark, across the Sea of Swords, back to the library of the Quiet Mountain and the poisoned blades of Mia’s old mentors, and at last the fabled Crown of the Moon. There, Mia will at last discover the origins of the darkin, and learn the destiny that lies in store for her and her world. But with the three suns now in descent, and Truedark on the horizon, will she survive?
I had thought my return to this series would be as easy as falling back in a friendly old dream, as effortless as curtains parting and meeting again on either side of an opera performance, a lever being pulled, one set whisked to the rafters and another dropped to the stage.
Yet, when I finished reading Darkdawn, I found myself moved by two contrary currents: my love for this series, appearing in the fragile wisp of my memory very much like its bright old self, and the realization—like a shock of cold water—that it had gradually burned away like a sea fog beneath the sun. There’s that distant feeling of familiarity still, but it’s soft around the edges, mushy, like it’s crumbling away. I almost wish I hadn’t read this book, so I could remain within the circumference of the past—back when nothing could have persuaded me to believe that my giddy enthusiasm for this series would one day become vague, entirely shrouded by the mists of time.
So what’s this book about?
The need for revenge has been a violent fire within Mia Corvere for eight years, and in the gladiatii arena, its flames had flared hot and blue. As a result, Julius Scaeva is dead, and her brother, Jonnen, whom she thought dead, is alive and safe. The world was supposed to work the way it had always been intended to work, running smoothly on all cylinders. But if Scaeva’s evil had been purely volatile, he might have not been as deadly as plague. Instead, he was calculating, and calculating men seldom dwell among the dead.
Scaeva appears to his daughter with a placating offer, to join his side and share his power, and in anyone else, it might have looked like kinship, but Mia couldn’t see it as anything so benign. Mia wanted to visit on him a cataclysm of nightmares that would leave him spinning through darkness forever. But a new realization tiptoes toward her, unfaltering and ugly: Mia and Scaeva were as alike as leaves, and maybe she was always meant to be as much of a monster, and he was only the instrument.
But more complicated than Mia’s unthwarted pursuit of vengeance: Jonnen’s remembrance of his sister is muddied-up below the waterline alongside his late mother, and although his savior, Mia now seems to him baleful and outlandish and cruel, and even more inexpiable, his father’s murderess. Tric, it seems, has dragged his mortal limbs through fearful darkness to come back for Mia, carrying a destiny, but his infantile hope quickly curdles into something jagged and despairing when he learns that Mia’s new lover is none other than Ashlinn, the woman who killed him. Tric and Ashlinn are like twin harpies of past and present hovering always by Mia, and her heart was at war with itself. And they were all on steel tracks thundering inevitably on into a perilous, inky tunnel ahead.
YOUR VENGEANCE IS AS THE SUNS, MIA. IT SERVES ONLY TO BLIND YOU.
Darkdawn’s company is like a strong tonic. Bracing—and best to eschew altogether if you can’t handle the kick. Beguiled by the series’ theatrical unrepentance and intractable style, I found myself falling under its spell. This time, however, the same spell hung on me, yet I felt weightless.
The stakes in this installment are mostly smaller than in the series’ opener and sequel. Darkdawn is a harrowing read, but not even half as much so as its predecessors. The unforced pace drags, and the plot is rather such an unrelenting onslaught of fight scenes, sex, bawdiness, it becomes numbing. The result is an unbalanced, unwieldy beast that could have been streamlined some.
The acerbic angst, the verbal excess, the deadpan laughs—it turns out—are not an endlessly renewable energy source. Like in the series books before it, the author likes to drop in from the sky in his narratorial guise with cute self-referential footnotes and dramatic asides, even toying with the edges meta and making fun of his own wordy tendencies—a habit I previously found illuminating, charming and clever, but which had worn thin like a scrap of limp rope thrown over a branch that you can hardly grapple onto, and begun to require a great deal of emotional labor. Kristoff does lay it on a little too thick sometimes, and his efforts to transform nearly every observation into something either hilarious or profound yields many overwritten lines and dilutes the story’s power to persuade us. Throughout, I kept reflecting: if this is how desultory I feel after three chapters, then how desultory can I expect to feel after twenty more?
Every now and then, the story kicks into a new gear, and the shift feels right, only for a twist to happen, sending the plot, regrettably, in a different direction, away from I once most relished about the series: the intricate plotting, gallows humor and murky moral grays.
Also a tad deflating: in my memory, the dynamics between the characters—specifically, the romance—projected such an impression of solidity and wholeness which—to me, at least—seemed to have been leached away in this book, leaving them just pale noise. The snide, taunting edge of Ashlinn’s impenitence annoyed me, Mia’s endless ping-ponging between Tric and Ash aggravated me to no end, and it’s nearly impossible to reconcile with Tric’s vitality as a character knowing how the story ends. The only saving grace was Jonnen’s presence and the dynamics of two siblings who lived different childhoods, yet were shaped in such similar ways.
The conclusion, once it settles, feels—if not satisfying—than weirdly inevitable. I think I would have felt more strongly about it if the author has chosen instead to upend the board game and send the pieces flying—completely subverting all expectations.
I guess you either die without having read the finale of your favorite series or live long enough to be sorely disappointed.