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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

“A Magic of Nightfall” by S.L. Farrell (Reviewed by Liviu C. Suciu)

Official S.L. Farrell Website
Order “A Magic of Nightfall
Read Excerpts HERE

INTRODUCTION: I just recently heard about the Nessantico Cycle by S.L. Farrell, aka Steven Leigh, courtesy of a great online review of the first book, “A Magic of Twilight”, and bought the novel on the spot. After a hundred pages or so of setup which took a little getting used to—although the glossary does help—“A Magic of Twilight” became a book that I literally could not put down until I had finished it. Immediately afterward, I couldn’t wait to read the sequel and despite very high expectations, “A Magic of Nightfall” delivered and then some...

Since events in “A Magic of Nightfall” take place twenty-seven years after the first book, the following review will contain spoilers. In fact, the cover blurb for “A Magic of Nightfall” contains spoilers itself, so if you haven’t read the first book yet, I would strongly recommend that you avoid reading anything about “A Magic of Nightfall”. You will not regret it.

SETTING: For the general setting of the Nessantico Cycle series, I can’t do any better than letting the author himself explain it:

Imagine Renaissance Florence blended with late Imperial Rome and spiced with some of the trappings of ‘fin de siécle’ Vienna: a great city of a far-reaching empire; a city situated at the center of civilization; a city where art and music and writing flourish, where the world’s greatest minds and greatest talents come to make their reputations, while the trade of a hundred lesser nations passes through the ports and the streets.

That is Nessantico.

Consider a world where magic has for centuries been linked to a central, dominating religion and secret rituals, a world where magic is an integral part of the ‘technology’ of the world, but where now some people claim to be able to create magic without the rituals, without the religion—people those in charge consider dangerous enemies. Magic here is created through a devout faith, and can only be performed by a special few whose minds are open to it. Here, magic lights the streets and powers the engines of economy; here, magic is the great weapon of war and forms the foundation of Nessantico’s greatness as well as the chains that bind its servant nations to it

A Magic of Nightfall” is set twenty-seven years after the events in “A Magic of Twilight” and mostly follows the new generation including Allesandra, the daughter of the powerful Firenczian Hirzig Jan the elder; her son Jan the younger; and her considerably younger brother Fynn, the current a'Hirzig and soon to be Hirzig since the elder Jan is dying of an incurable illness.

In Nessantico, there is a regency for the fourteen-year-old Kralji Audric, the only surviving child of the unlamented Kralji Justi, led by Sergei. Ana is still the Archigos of the church and secretly uses her “heretical” healing powers to keep the badly asthmatic Audric alive. However, in Brezno there is a rival intolerant church led by Archigos Semini who is still married to Ana's “rival”, Francesca.

Talis is the successor of Mahri as the Westlander chief sorcerer spy in Nessantico, while his ten-year-old son Nico feels the stirrings of power within him, but is confused by his divided loyalties between his maternal native city and his father's secrets.

Karl, the Numetodo ambassador/councilor and sometime lover of Ana, is now a widower with her kids grown, while Varina, the most powerful Numetodo in Nessantico, has prematurely aged because of her overuse of magic. Both are Ana's trusted friends and Sergei's stalwart allies, but the church, nobility and people of Nessantico still distrusts and even hates them, so they are strongly dependent on Ana & Sergei holding on to their power.

Eneas is a promising and ultra-devout officer in the Nessantico army occupying Hellins against the Westlanders, while Niente is the chief spellcaster of the Westlanders and principal adviser to the Westlander king, and the direct superior of Talis.

Lastly, White Stone is a mysterious young assassin who leaves a white stone on each corpse’s left eye, supposedly to capture the soul of the murdered person and prevent him or her from revealing their murderer.

FORMAT/INFO:A Magic of Nightfall” stands at 624 pages divided over eleven major named parts, with a Prologue and Epilogue narrated by the POV of the city Nessantico. Each part is subdivided into shorter chapters that are narrated by the POVs of Allesandra, Jan the younger, Varina, Audric, Karl, Sergei, Nico, the White Stone, Eneas and later Niente. The narration is in the third-person present tense. The book also features maps of the Nessantico Holdings and of the city itself, and extensive Appendices at the end, including an excerpt from “Nessantico Concordia, 4th edition, Year 642” and a chronology of the intervening twenty-seven years, from 521 when “A Magic of Twilight” concluded to 548, the beginning of “A Magic of Nightfall”. The book is self-contained with the last volume of the trilogy to take place about 15 years later.

March 3, 2009 marks the North American Hardcover publication of “A Magic of Nightfall” via
DAW Books. Cover art provided by Todd Lockwood.

PLOT HINTS AND ANALYSIS:A Magic of Nightfall” starts off with a bang, literally, and from there goes on a roll until its superb ending almost 600 pages later. So despite its length, the book is a very easy and very fast read, assuming that you are familiar with the universe. If not, the appendices do a great job of bringing the reader up to date with the terminology, setup and history of significant events.

Though technically a second novel in a trilogy, the standalone format benefits the series greatly, so we are not hampered by the “middle book syndrome” where nothing is resolved. In this respect, the series is closer to an epic historical saga that follows the sweep of a country, a dynasty or a city across time rather than a more traditional epic fantasy that follows a set of characters.

Even though there are multiple viewpoints, Allesandra ca'Vorl drives the novel the way Ana ca'Seranta drove “A Magic of Twilight”. Here, Allesandra is a powerful and mature woman, a former designated successor to her father and still widely regarded as the next natural Hirzig, with Fynn perceived as a lightweight. Of course, Allesandra has great ambitions commensurate with her talent and capabilities, and being Hirzig of a sundered Eastern Holdings is not necessarily what she wants, so Fynn is safe from her—at least temporarily.

Audric, the fourteen-year-old asthmatic Kralji, is very fascinating and realistically drawn, and his struggles with breathing are very familiar to someone who suffered from pretty bad asthma as a child. The arc of Audric's story is very well done, if not particularly cheery.

Sergei is his stolid self from the previous book, but older and more addicted to torture and the harsh interrogation of enemies of the state. He is also the closest to a true successor to the great Kraljica Marguerite in his devotion to and love of Nessantico beyond any personal aspirations.

Jan the younger starts as a naive sixteen-year-old, insofar the son of Allesandra can be naive, but once he is pulled into his uncle Fynn's orbit he matures quickly and becomes the clear candidate to take over as the “main” lead from Allesandra, the way she took over from her captor, surrogate mother and friend Ana.

White Stone” is also a very intriguing character, and together with young Nico, they bring an outsider “common people’s” view to the high stakes events.

Karl and Varina are visibly older and careworn versions of their younger selves from the first book and it shows, but they are ultimately very sympathetic with their “humanistic”, no-gods, no-nonsense, “help the others” philosophy of life.

Of the enemy, Talis is conflicted between a fondness for his adoptive city, his Nessantican wife and son, and his sacred duty to his people and their gods, and we remain uncertain of his ultimate loyalties almost until the end, while Niente starts off as a distant symbol of alien gods and viewpoints, but slowly grows on us, so we get to like him and hope at least for his survival, if not victory.

Only Eneas is utterly unsympathetic, and based on the author's references at the end of the book, I believe he reflects Mr. Leigh's conviction that blind, unreasoning faith can lead only to disaster.

In the end, a very ambitious tale of intrigue, politics, love, assassinations and war, “A Magic of Nightfall” is just a superior epic. While the first volume in the series suffered a little from the slow beginning which was necessary to set up the tale, and was also somewhat less balanced overall in combining its various ingredients and viewpoints, “A Magic of Nightfall” finds the author raising his game to the next level and producing a work that is comparable to any epic fantasy currently being published today. Highly, highly recommended...


Jeff C said...

Nice review Liviu. I'm now about 60% done with book 1 and am enjoying it. I'm glad to know book 2 is just as good or maybe even better. I'm still waiting to become "attached" to at least one of the characters, though (which is my main beef with the book so far).

Liviu said...

Thank you for the kind words!

The attachment thing is one reason I tend to avoid books that focus on a place evolving in time rather than a set of characters.

However there are some books like that that I really loved and this series is a good example of such.

In the first book I liked Anna the most and she grounds that one the way Alessandra does this one, but there are many fascinating characters in both

In sf the Culture series of IM Banks is a great example of this kind of fiction that I love a lot, while in mainstream, Roma by S. Saylor which follows two families in vignettes at crucial moments of a 1000 years of Roman history is a great one too :)

Mihai A. said...

Very nice review, Liviu, as always :)
I should check this novels, so I'll add them to my shopping list.

Liviu said...

Thank you for your kind words; the Nessantico series was something I started reading mostly due to Mark's review from sffworld

ediFanoB said...

A Magic of Twilight is on my to buy list for next month. So I couldn't resist to read your review of A Magic of Nightfall which I really appreciated.
I always look at "middle books" with concerns. But you blew them away with your review.


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