I'm excited to introduce my review for A Vanishing Glow by Alexis Radcliff. The author provided me with a free ebook in exchange for an honest review, and she's also being gracious enough to offer an interview later in the week to talk more about worldbuilding and her writing process.
Rating: 3.5 stars
Length: Moderately long (343 pages, feels longer in ebook format)
Publication: Self-published via Fatecaster Press October 1, 2015
Premise: In a world ruled by the rising technology of magic turned into mystech crystals, Jason Tern is thrust into political struggle that all his combat experience never prepared him to face. Far across the country, a young engineer finds her resolve and her ideals tested as she plays her own role in unraveling the plot that threatens to destroy them both.
Warnings: graphic physical injury
Recommendation: If you're interested in steampunk, high fantasy, or unconventional sexual mores, this might be for you. There are some grim moments of injury and guilt, but it's to advance the story rather than for cheap horror.
What makes this world ripe for exploration:
I've read plenty of steampunk and high fantasy, but this one stands out for its sharp and unusual worldbuilding. Where many authors choose to put magic against technology, Radcliff merges them in an unusual way. Divis (priests of the divine) can use the divine power of numen, but they can't do a lot of things at once without becoming exhausted. The Mystech Forge pulls that power into the concrete form of mystech crystals that can be used to power large devices as well as individual construct limbs that fit onto amputee stumps that can function much like real arms or legs. There's broad prejudice against constructs, and not just because they look different. They can lift more and move faster than people with normal limbs, so they're able to take over more jobs, which obviously generates the resentment and unrest that drives the book. Nole Ryon, the crown prince, is determined to protect the people and limit the power of the greedy elite, but it's a tangled situation with layers that look like they'll extend far into the sequels.
The sociology of how this society manages sex is also fascinating. People take same-sex bedfellows in adolescence, don’t seem to have sex in early adulthood, and then graduate into opposite-sex marriages; people who retain same-sex preferences in adulthood are seen as childish, while those who have opposite-sex outside of marriage are scorned as “breedlusts.” Authors occasionally take the Spartan example of (usually) boys having relationships with older same-sex mentors and then moving away from that in adulthood, but I don't think I've even seen a whole society built on this particular age-based shift before. It makes for some unique character struggles of identity and desire and what having that thwarted does to people, and it's a breath of fresh air in a genre brimming with orthodox love triangles. I'd love to see more of how this plays out in future volumes, especially with a neighboring society that's much more relaxed about who can openly be in a relationship without sticking to the slums or the shadows. Radcliff clearly put a lot of thought into this and why it developed as a religious and cultural directive, keeping the struggle for these people feel focused, real, and very human.
Nilya, one of the lead characters, is a demolitions expert with the Crimson Fist, the military force that isn't quite an army but isn't far off from one either. She's smart, impatient, impulsive, and a little too willing to pursue her goals regardless of the cost...but also afraid to chase after what she wants the very most. She could easily be a cliche or a piece shoved from plot point to plot point, given how driven by guilt and fear she is, but her process of learning to own her decisions and move based on what feels right really drives the smaller arc. She doesn't deal as directly with the high-level intrigue, only brushing against it, but through her eyes we see how this land is really working and relate to her even when she can't face or forgive herself.
This is hard to discuss in detail without running afoul of my spoiler policy, but this book is not afraid to kill or maim characters when the narrative calls for it. Some of the major deaths are genuinely surprising, and that really helps with the feeling of mounting chaos and the impression that this society is fragile enough to collapse if anyone just pushes hard enough.
The red pen:
The political situation is smooth and varied once it gets going, but the early chapters come off as slow and dense with exposition after an initial engaging scene. Dumping so many names and political motivations at the start makes it hard to care about them and to remember what's relevant later. Part of the fun of political intrigue is getting lots of little hints leading you to a conclusion about who's pulling the strings, and this didn't quite deliver. We figure out that one major character is a pawn partway through, which ups the stakes nicely, but the journey from the villain being revealed to the story jumping on to the next thing is small. Between that and the way we're given a bundle of characters and Jason Tern's suspicions that "this ones smiles and seems self-interested, he must be behind all this" but little more in the way of substantive sources of suspicion, the political intrigue doesn't quite keep pace with the broader tension.
It also leads to some of the book's least realistic scenes-- when Jason needs to meet the other Lords Regent and learn about them, he meets one quite naturally and more or less trips over all the rest without having to spend time with lower-ranked nobles at the same gathering. He has a list of people to meet, he meets them in rapid succession starting with the most trustworthy, and the rest of the ruling class is set dressing. Given how rich the technology and sociology are, it's surprising to see the upper echelons of society itself so thinly represented. There are promising glimpses of how ordinary citizens feel about the way the East and West have been struggling, but I'd like to see that fleshed out in future volumes. It's hard to give sufficient time to every angle without making a book too long and bulky, but a few major characters could have showed up much earlier to smooth out the ending and more background one-off characters would have been nice; it's hard to share a character's fear that danger could be coming from anyone when there are only so many named characters who could be responsible.
Jason himself also doesn't quite carry his own weight. I like that he's politically clumsy and solves problems by charging at them headfirst-- it's realistic for someone who's spent time away from society, and he definitely suffers the consequences of not thinking before leaping in. Unfortunately, he just doesn't pop in the way Nilya does. I can't think of an exact parallel for her character, but Jason slides too easily into the grim and determined warrior-detective slot, and it's hard to care what drives him besides justice. He just doesn't change fundamentally; he kicks himself for mistakes, but he keeps making very similar ones, and some major disasters knock him down while others barely graze the surface of his resolve. I think that the climax of the book will make for a lot of growth in the sequels, but right now he's a touch too bland, even when we're digging into the traumatic past that makes him tick.
The verdict: Once you get past the first few chapters, this is well worth the read. The world is rich, complex, and about to change dramatically in the next books; if future volumes can live up to and surpass this one, The Mystech Arcanum will really be a series to watch.
Prospects: More volumes are coming, and I'll update this with more information after the author interview goes live.
Enjoyed this? Try:
~The closest resemblance is probably Jim Butcher's recent The Aeronaut's Windlass, a magic-and-steampunk adventure that's equally prepared to be grim and delve into an unusual world of magical crystals. I haven't done a review of it yet, but stay tuned for a guest post announcement.
~Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings hits a similar note of intrigue, trying to find treachery in the ranks, as well as channeling naturally occurring magic or divine energy into usable forms for quite mundane uses. It's more of a doorstop and far slower to get some momentum going, but once you realize that humanity is ill-prepared for a hidden threat (as you do in A Vanishing Glow), the ending really comes together.
~The Strange Affair of Sping-Heeled Jack.
The spin on steampunk technology is different, and it's rooted in more
familiar historical twists, but the way new devices are transforming
everyone's lives strikes a similar note, and the stakes are just as