A Pattern of Light and Shadow
by Melissa McPhail
I started reading these books about the time my eldest son fell ill, trapping me on the couch while he watched kid shows. He kindly passed the virus to me, giving me both time and motivation to dive into a good series. I ended up reading all four of her books (the fifth one comes out in June) within a week, which makes it easy to review them all at once.
On the whole, I enjoyed the books and I’m looking forward to reading the next one in the series, but I have to admit there are a few weakness in the plot and structure I feel could have been done better. This means a lot of this review will be spent looking at those weaknesses, and yet I don’t want to give the impression that the series is bad. It’s not. In fact, I rather suspect that any series this large must inevitably contain weaknesses, even if those faults are due only to preference (and some of what I mention certainly is). I loved reading the Wheel of Time and those books had some serious issues. McPhail’s books are of similar scope, so it’s not unreasonable to expect similar issues. And so while I will expound them, I must reiderate: I really enjoyed these books.
Let’s dive in.
To start out, the series aims at being epic and does a reasonably good job. McPhail juggles probably a dozen separate storylines and I’d guess that maybe half of these are the main protagonists. This shifts somewhat throughout the series as ‘side’ characters come to the fore and even antagonists switch sides but on the whole, you’re following quite a few different interrelated stories all at once.
Truth is, I’m not a huge fan of switching characters every one to two chapters. I get why it’s done, especially when the ’story’ consists of multiple characters that must be told in this way or else ruin part of the suspense. And yet I can’t help but feel frustrated when a character arc stops abruptly to jump to another story I don’t care about at the time. It creates a disjointed experience to me that works to push me out of the series. I have to consciously force myself to keep reading.
It also creates books littered with semi cliff-hangers that only encourage me to skim the uninteresting characters in order to get back to the story I want to be reading. Want to know what happens to John? You gotta read through Sally and George and some random side story about June before the book will return to John. By then, maybe you actually got caught up in Sally and want to know what happens to her, but now John’s story is being told and you have to wait… or skim.
And yes, I found myself skimming more than once.
Epics do not need to be told like this (sigh… caveat but sometimes they do). It’s certainly possible weave character arcs without creating cliff hangers, and when authors structure their books like this I can’t help but feel they’re using a cheap gimmick to pull the reader through the book rather than by the quality of story or prose. It is further irritating when the author doesn’t need to do this. On the whole, I think McPhail has a good story with interesting characters. In my opinion, she didn’t need to structure the book this way.
She used cliff-hangers as a literary trick to keep people in her book. Bleh.
Yet, on the whole, this is a minor, albeit repeated annoyance that is quickly forgotten once I’m drawn back into the world and story. It’s also a fairly common format, so either some people like it, or the industry as a whole has become inured to its drawbacks. And yes, some people do like this format so… ok.
The world McPhail has created is one of the better examples of world-building I’ve come across. She’s done a lot of work to create distinct cultures, languages, and geography and it really shows. She does just enough mixing of ‘fake’ languages to distinctive cultural mores to create depth to each culture. Everything from the description of clothing, forms of language, geographical considerations, and political outlook work to create a world that feels real.
I really appreciated this aspect of her writing. It’s obvious she thought through the world. It feels alive, it’s own personality, a character even. And while there are some small complaints I had, it amounted to little more than nitpicking.
Magic can be usually is a complicated literary device in fiction in that it’s possible for it to fill multiple purposes. Special effects, character progression, philosophy, world-building, and plot-driving conflicts are some of the main ones. Using magic effectively in writing requires the author to know what role it’s filling at any given moment, and then consciously use the magic to fill that role appropriately. More importantly, care must be taken to ensure that applying a particular use out of magic, doesn’t then undermine its other roles.
So while McPhail applies the same level of attention to the magic system, which is layered, interrelated, interesting, and mostly consistent, I felt there were many weak points in how she applied that magic to particular scenes, and especially to characters.
I think my biggest complaint was that the magic in the series too often felt like little more than special effects. Add to that so many characters that are practically gifted with god-level magic, and several of the other roles magic is supposed to fill get undermined.
This created, for me at least, the feeling that a lot of these ‘special-affects’ were simply back-filling in a foregone conclusion based on a plot directive with pretty explosions. Magic was playing a central role in the plot, yet I’d begun to feel like it was all contrived, and as soon as the magic feels contrived, the plot also starts to feel hollow.
Ugh… I almost ended this section there. But I really need to say that the magic system is good, no matter how I feel about its application in certain places. A big part of what kept me in these books is my desire to see how the magic system fits into the larger picture, or reality itself (philosophical application of magic).
I have really mixed feeling about the plot. On the whole, the overarching plot is very good. I can’t really go into much detail without spoiling the story, but I will say it was a big draw for me to keep reading. At the end of the fourth book, the plot spans at least three worlds, two realities, and manages to tie together a lot of separate mysteries and character arcs. Nice.
My problem comes down to the individual character arcs. Each one, taken in isolation, is pretty good. The challenge for me comes from the repetitive nature of the plot between each character’s arc. It got the point where I was starting to predict what would happen to individual characters, even if I didn’t know how it would relate to the overarching storyline. Several times I was tempted to put the book down, especially once some character gets kidnapped, again. Now, to be fair, these kidnappings don’t always end the same way, so there is some variability there, but not a whole lot.
The other plot mechanic she overuses is the mysterious past, where a character has some unknown past, either to themselves, someone else, or perhaps to everyone except the reader. She uses several mechanics to facilitate this including amnesia, reincarnation (which plays a big role in these books), or even parentage. There’s a lot of fun watching someone try to figure out a past or identity you already know, especially in those moments when they or someone else realizes who they really are. It gets a little old when it’s done four or five times.
Also, so many villains, most of whom have an obscene disregard for life, seem oddly reluctant to spill blood when a protagonist enters the scene. Instead, they almost invariably choose to put the protagonist into some kind of challenge, prison, torture, or another dimension when simply slitting their enemy’s throat would be more in line with their character and a hell of a lot more convenient. To this end, several of the villains felt less like people and more like plot generators (often via kidnapping).
And yet, for all that, despite the repetitive nature of the character arcs, each plot is still very well written. I may have been annoyed a bit at the repetition, but I kept reading.
One of the constant themes throughout the series regards that of romantic relationships, of which almost all of the protagonists have at least one. I like the idea of integrating these relationships into the primary plot, as opposed to a side-kick. For the most part, these relationships are important and integral to what’s going on. I’ve read a lot of fantasy that completely ignores this aspect of existence and I’m happy to read a series that actually includes the concept of relationships as foundational to the story itself.
I do have a problem with the execution, though, in that the relationships are almost too perfect. Many of the characters fall in love almost instantly, being swept up into grand emotions, perfect sex, and endless moments of love. Faults are forgiven too easily, mistakes are glossed over, and the lover is idolized on every possible aspect. I personally found it hard to identify with this, and in my mind, the characters turned into caricatures of themselves whenever they interacted with their lover. It made it hard for me to care when they become, in turn, star-crossed, navigating the dark waters with naught but their absent lover’s light to guide them. Having trouble believing in their love I, in turn, had difficulty caring for their plight.
This isn’t true of every relationship, though, and a few of them carry a bit more depth to them. One of my favorites so far is between one of the antagonists (maybe… he seems to have turned) and a gay relationship of someone he fell in love with, but who hated(s?) with every fiber of his being. There’s a neat interplay in that relationship which adds depth the others lack.
There are other themes McPhail tries to address that I found hit or miss but don’t have time to go into. Honor, where one character is almost obsessed with honor and yet you see that almost nowhere else in the book, which kind of undermines the point. Torture is well portrayed in its act, but I felt was undermined when the good characters somehow seem to ‘get over it all’ far too quickly.
It may seem like I’m harping on the author and the series, but the truth is I liked the books a lot. There are flaws, yes, and I point them out for my own benefit, to learn from what I consider the author’s mistakes. Of course, not all may even be considered a mistake. It could be personal preference or intentional by the author. But the series itself is well written, with a deep and complex plot, engaging characters, well-built world, and a solid magic system.
In the end, McPhail set out to create a new epic series and she succeeded. Moreover, she created something unique, engaging, and interesting. That is no small feat. She’s done something remarkable and I think she’s earned a great recommendation for her books.
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