A Magic of Twilight by S L Farrell
Book 1 of the Nessantico Cycle
Published by DAW Books
Published February 2008
Review by Mark Yon / Hobbit
You know, there’s an essay to be written somewhere about the influence of history on Fantasy writers. Its influence is often rather clear. The usual template is the medieval model, with the societal trimmings and hierarchy throughout many Fantasy classics. Examples are too numerous to count.
For many, however, it is the influence of the Roman society that predominates: try Sophia McDougall’s Romanitas or Robert Silverberg’s Eterna Roma as recent examples.
Lastly, and most important here, however, is the Renaissance model. For it is such an outline that is a clear influence here. Even the cover of the novel reflects this: though there are figures there, the picture is dominated by a huge ornate throne, next to a global statue, within a bigger domed room. The impression is of Italian architecture, power and sovereignty (though the writer in his Acknowledgements suggests an influence of the French Loire valley.)
Nevertheless, whatever the origins, the story here is of a city: the vast, complex, ornate Nessantico, capital of the Holdings, and the complex machinations (politically and societally) that exist within it. Like the Renaissance period of our history, the story begins at a time, paradoxically, of both stability and change. To this are introduced a broad list of characters, each giving different perspectives on the events that follow.
The novel begins at the point where the ruling leader / Kraljica, Marguerite ca’ Ludovici, is about to celebrate fifty years of power in the city while simultaneously there is unrest in the Kraljica’s dominion. This is partly led by external unrest from the Numetodo, a revolutionary group with a heretical humanistic viewpoint, determined to force change by whatever means necessary. Internally, unrest is also generated at the apex of society by Justi ca’Mazzak, son of the Kraljica and ruler-in-waiting, who feels that it is his time to rule and looks for means of heralding his mother’s retirement.
Away from the royal family, society is powered by its use of magic. This is formulated into society as a religion. Ana cu’Seranta is a Teni acolyte finishing her training in the use of the Ilmodo (the pervasive magic energy changed by its user into a healing power or a weapon of war) as a priestess of the Concenzia Faith (worshipping the god Cenzi.). The leader of the Faith, Dhosti ca’Millac, is a dwarf, the Archigos of the religious group whose main purpose appears to be defending the faith against stagnation and decline. On the opposing side, Orlandi ca’Cellibrecca postulates a traditional view above all others and actively encourages the removal of Dhosti and anyone who veers from the standard rhetoric. Karl ci’Vliomani is one of those who suggests an alternative, if heretical development in society. A Numetodo envoy in the midrange of the societies’ hierarchical structure, he is tolerated as an eccentric outcast.
The day to day running of the city is also examined through the viewpoint of Sergei ca’Rudka, the Commandant of the Garde Kralji and head of the city’s security operations, who attempts to monitor such outbursts of unrest.
Though the city is large, events happen outside the city and give the impression of a greater Empire. Outside the city, the Kraljica’s Garde Civile is supported by the Firenzcian army, commanded by Jan ca’Vorl, Hirzg of Firenzcia. It was due to his army that the Kraljica won her last war, but now, after many years of peace, the Hirzg feels it is time to reassert his position.
Clearly with such a large character list (of which the above is but a short summary), this is a big fat fantasy and the first book in a trilogy to boot. So what does this have to offer, more than the (many) others, that makes it worthy of your attention?
Well, firstly, the world-building is most impressive. Though the Renaissance is an influence, the city and the society within, and without, it are well realised. There is a sense of place, of worldly decadence and decline, which is subtly though well realised. The city has a presence throughout the book, a character as well as a place.
Secondly, for such a lengthy list of characters, the characterisation is also surprisingly rounded. People are not always as positive, nor as negative as is sometimes portrayed. Steve, like many of the currently better-known Fantasy writers, is not afraid to play with our perceptions here. Characters unexpectedly die or have enough ambiguity to make them worth reading.
After the first hundred or so pages of the book, the skilful multiple-person narrative and world building had dragged me in enough to make this book difficult to put down. The events at the end of the book were everything you could hope for in a book of this type, without being totally predictable.
My biggest problem was getting my head around the complicated familial and societal structures, the complicated mouthful of seemingly random letters used to portray nomenclature. This took me a little time to get my head round, though they do follow a system devised around a clearly well thought out hierarchical system (which is explained in the twenty or so pages of the Appendix at the back of the book.)
In summary, if you can get round the complexities of the society and environment, this novel is an engaging mix of schemes, plots and action that many will enjoy. Secure in its own Renaissance-style environment, this novel was a pleasant surprise, and one which deserves greater recognition.
Mark Yon / Hobbit, March 2008