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Tuesday, August 26, 2014


Author:  Carol Berg
Plot Type:  High Fantasy
Ratings:  Violence—3; Sensuality2; Humor—2 
Publisher:  ROC 
          Dust and Light (8/2014)
          Ash and Silver (12/2015)

This ongoing post was revised and updated on 4/14/2016 to include a review of Ash and Silver, the second novel. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and a review of the first novel.

                         NOVEL 2: Ash and Silver                         
     Ever since the Order of the Equites Cineré stole his memory, his name, and his heart, thinking about the past makes Greenshank’s head ache. After two years of rigorous training, he is almost ready to embrace the mission of the Order—to use selfless magic to heal the troubles of Navronne. But on his first assignment alone, the past comes racing back, threatening to drown him in conspiracy, grief, and murder.

     He is Lucian de Remeni—a sorcerer whose magical bents for portraiture and history threaten the safety of the earth and the future of the war-riven kingdom of Navronne. He just can’t remember how or why.

     Fighting to unravel the mysteries of his power, Lucian must trace threads of corruption that reach from the Pureblood Registry into the Order itself, the truth hidden two centuries in the past and beyond the boundaries of the world... 

           FAIR WARNING: This review has spoilers for Dust and Light.           
     I am late in reviewing this novel; it's been nearly a year and a half since I read Dust and Light. That means that the details of the mythology and the events of that first book have receded in memory to the point that getting into Ash and Silver was very difficult at first. Then, I realized that I had to put myself in Greenshank's placea man with no memory of his life before he arrived at Fortress Evanide, the headquarters of the Equites Cineré, the Order of the Knights of the Ashes. Even though this approach eventually worked for me, I do recommend that you read these books back to back. The mythology is extremely dense, and the plots are complex, so it's best to keep the amount of time between books to the very minimum.

     As the book opens, Greenshank has been given only a few memories of his previous life, but not enough to know who he was or why he agreed to be sent to the Order. After a rough period of adjustment, "I had grown to relish Evanide's rigor, living and breathing the lessons of magical warfare, preparing to combat the evils of a world I could recall only in the abstract. Every day I reveled in the satisfaction of growing strength and agility. And the magic seared my soul with wonder and glory...Our masters had made us empty so we could learn without boundaries." The members of the Order greet each other with the phrase, Dalle Cineré, which means "from the ashes." This phrase relates metaphorically to the phoenix myththe great bird rising anew from its own ashes. Keep this in mind as you follow Greenshank through his adventures.

     As the plot unwinds, Greenshank has to decide which of his superiors to trust, which to distrust, and which to fear. In the beginning, Greenshank fully trusts only two: his guide/trainer, Knight Commander Inek, and Fix, the boat master. The three ruling Knights of the Order are as follows. Can any of them be trusted?
> The Knight Marshall, the leader of the Order.
> The Knight Archivist, the record-keeper and guardian of the relicts—the spelled stone fragments that hold the memories of the members of the Order until they are either restored or destroyed, depending on each person's position in the Order and the choices he makes.
> The Knight Defender, the Order's final bastion. He has more magical power than any other in the Order. 
    Like the first book, this one is divided into four sections:

>> Part I: Sea and Stone 
     After two hard years living a life tougher than the infamous U.S. Marine boot camp, Greenshank has hardened into a strong, skilled, masked warrior with powerful and ever-growing magic talent. One day, Greenshank is sent on a solo mission to an isolated estuary where a beautiful Danae woman named Morgan accosts him, demanding to know where he has been. She implies that they have been lovers in the past. At first, Greenshank believes that, "she could not possibly know me. Wherever the knights had recruited me, they would have ensured we were not followed, bringing the full power of the Order's memory magic to bear on anyone who tried. Anonymity was our lifeblood. Our safety. Our first and strongest weapon." When Greenshank finally convinces Morgan that his memories have been erased, she tells him that his real name is Lucian and claims that her people meed his counsel. Morgan appears and disappears frequently during Greenshank's missions throughout the remainder of the book, sometimes accompanied by her hostile father, Tuari.

     When Greenshank returns from his mission, he meets with the Marshall and with a Curator of the Registrar named Damon, who takes a particular interest in Greenshank's training and his missions. Why is the Marshall allowing a Registry member to interfere with Greenshank's training? What is Damon up to? Do Damon and Greenshank have a history? These are all questions that Greenshank must investigate. Then the Marshall meets with Greenshank alone, telling him the history of the Order and its connection to a mystical city named Xancheira, which disappeared centuries ago with all its inhabitants. At this point, Xancheira and its people become an important plot element.

>> Part II: The Teeth of Spring 
     In the meantime, Navronne's three princes (Perryn, Bayard, and Osriel) are battling one another for the throne of their recently deceased father. Damon sends Greenshank out to spy on Osriel, who turns out to be a dangerously powerful dark sorcerer. On the way to this mission, Morgan takes Greenshank on a side trip to meet up with the coroner, Bastien, Lucian's former employer/partner from book 1, and the two reunite as friends and allies. At this point, Morgan's father, Tuari, appears, ready to kill Greenshank for deeds he claims were done by Lucian. Greenshank makes an agreement with Tuari to keep him informed of any meetings he has with the Danai woman marked in silver who appeared to Lucian in a vision (in book 1). Bastien then takes Greenshank to the home of the Circerons and tells him that story (also from book 1). The section ends with Inek's being caught in a magical trap when he tries to access Greenshank's relict for information about his past, leaving Inek in a magical coma. At this point, Greenshank discovers some heart-breaking information about his relict, the stone fragment that holds his memories. Damon allows Greenshank to view a terrible scene from his past. The focus in this section is on giving Greenshank much more information about his former life.

>> Part III: Shattered Stars  
     Inek remains in a coma, and Greenshank takes his place as guide/trainer to two of his comrades. He learns more about Damon's personal history, making him more and more distrustful of Damon's motives. He sneaks away for meetings with Morgan and Bastian. He learns the true identity of the Knight Defender and meets yet another Registry Curate, who begs him to leave the Order and gives him even more information about his past. By now, Greenshank mistrusts most of his superiors. He makes his first trip through a portal door and finds people to save and a mission that he must complete on his own. The story lines involving Sanctuary and Xancheira move into primary positions. Greenshank suspects that Damon, the Marshal, and the Archivist are secretly working together, but that they also have their own individual agendas. At times, he believes that he can trust one or more of them, but he's never quite sure. Bastian sums up Greenshank's dilemma: "Curator Damon's plot and the Danae mystery. Same as two years ago. You're further along the path but still without a map to either one." In this section, Greenshank is pulled further and further into the political machinations of his superiors and the Xancheira mission he has set for himself, which involves multiple trips back and forth through portals. 

>> Part IV: The Glory to Banish Grief  
     In this section, all questions are answered, all villains are unmasked, and all heroes are revealed. Greenshank arises from his own metaphorical ashes and embraces his destiny.

     Throughout this book, Greenshank/Lucian is on a journey that takes himand sometimes his alliesinto treacherous waters (both literally and figuratively) and eventually reveals the answers to dark secrets, both personal and historic. Trying to summarize the plot would be pointless because it twists and turns back upon itself time and time again as Greenshank tries to determine how to use his developing powers of magic for the greater good and who can be trusted to help him stay alive long enough to achieve his goals.

     This novel is equally as strong as the first, bringing Lucian/Greenshank's story to a satisfying close, but leaving room for more, perhaps another duet focusing on one or more of the secondary characters from the SANCTUARY DUET. I'm sure that Juli's story (Lucian's sister) would be quite interesting, as would that of Fallon (a character in both of the SANCTUARY books). Berg is a terrific story teller, and in Ash and Silver, she outdoes herself. She keeps the suspense at tense levels as her lead character tries to do the right thing even though he's out of his depth much of the time. The final sectionthe big finaleis masterfully constructed. Like Greenshank, I didn't know which characters were trustworthy until the big showdown scene when all of the their true agendas were revealed.

     Click HERE to go to go to the page for Ash and Silver where you can click on the cover art to read an excerpt. 
     Carol Berg is the author of more than a dozen fantasy novels, including her LIGHTHOUSE DUET (Flesh and Spirit and Breath and Bone), which is set in the same world as this series. Dust and Light is the first of Berg's books that I have readmostly because I am a fan of urban fantasy rather than high fantasybut the RT review was intriguing enough to draw me to it. 

     Like much fantasy fiction, this world has a Medieval feel to it, with its monarchical government, feudal social structure, primitive living conditions (especially for the poor), sword fighting, public whippings and hangings, and clothing styles that reflect that period. The series is set in the city of Palinur in the kingdom of Navronne, which is in the midst of a bloody war of succession between a pair of princely brothers: Perryn, presumptive heir to the throne, and Bayard, Perryn's contentious brother who hasn't yet given up the fight.

     In this mythology, a pureblood is basically a mage or a sorcerera magic user. "Pureblood sorcerers held the power of magic, the greatest gift of the gods to a troubled world, and they sacrificed a great deal to preserve, nurture, and share that gift. Not even Karish monks lived with more study, rules, and restrictions. Purebloods bound themselves and their grown children into strict service on the assurance that they would be provided the means to maintain the dignity of our calling and to withstand such travails as war and famine." (Dust and Lightp. 13) People with no magical talent are called ordinaries

     The series hero is Lucian de Remeni-Masson, eldest son of a noble family of purebloods. Lucian was born with the rare condition of dual bents, which means that he has two different magical talentsor bents: "Though I showed a deft hand at portraiture, inherited from my Masson mother, my preference had ever been for my Remeni father's bloodline magic…history....Unfortunately, experience warned that two strong bents led inevitably to madness, and the Registry had long insisted that the lesser one be excised. Yet my talents had both manifested as quite robust." (Dust and Lightp. 18) Unfortunately, after a youthful indiscretion involving a female ordinary, Lucian's grandfather punishes him by magically removing his history bent. As the series opens, Lucian is dealing with the grief of losing almost his entire family to a fire set by the Harrowers, a radical and violent religious sect that wants all purebloods dead. Now, Lucian's only living relative is his younger sister, Juli, and Lucian is now the the head of the family.

     Navronnian societyparticularly among the purebloodsruns according to a strict set of rules and traditions. For example, purebloods always wear a half-mask and a special type of cloak to make them instantly recognizable. Ordinaries are forbidden to speak to or touch a pureblood, except on command. When purebloods are out and about in the city, the law forbids anyone from robbing them or harming them in any way.

     All purebloods are under the control of the Registry, which contracts their services according to their particular bents and pays them a comfortable income and a secure social status. Unfortunately, as we soon learn, the Registry is corruptas is frequently the case with ruling bodies in paranormal fiction of all kinds.

     Two other cultural groups play a part in the series: the Danae and the Cicerons. The Danae appear to be similar to the Fae—otherworldly and beautiful, appearing and disappearing out of thin air. One of the Danae who appears to Lucian reminds him of his lost love, Morgan, but that story line is touched on only briefly and ambiguously in the first book. Here is Lucian's description of the Cicerons: "Skin as dusky as purebloods, bedecked with arm bracelets, earrings, and necklaces of false gold, they bred thieves, smugglers, fortune-tellers, and artists at picking pockets, knife juggling, and sleight of hand. Their knives found human targets, as well, especially any who crossed them." (Dust and Light, p. 22) The Cicerons live in the hirudo, a deep gully that borders the graveyard on the edge of the city.

     The cast of characters includes the following Curators of the Registry, each of whom plays a role in Lucian's troubles. Some want him killed; some want him imprisoned; and some want to force him to run away. And no one will tell him why they all seem to fear and hate him so much.

First Curator, Gramphier: The highest ranking official of the Registry and longtime friend of Lucian's grandfather.
First Register Damon: Known for his ruthlessness and loyalty to those who earn it.
Second Register, Pons-Laterus: She openly despises Lucian for breaking the rules and consorting with an ordinary.
> Overseer of Contracts, Guilian de Albin: A wealthy traditionalist who has always looked down upon Lucian.
Curator Scrutari-Consil: Petulant and annoying; condescending and arrogant.
Master of Archives, Pluvius: Lowest in rank, he has been Lucian's mentor ever since Lucian began working at the Registry.
   All of the curators treat Lucian badly, but some may have sympathetic reasons (in the long term) behind their actions. Lucian spends much of book 1 trying to figure out if he can trust any of them.

                         NOVEL 1:  Dust and Light                         
     As the story begins, Lucian is shocked when he loses his position as a Registry portrait painter and is contracted out to an ordinary for a pitiful sum of money. His new Master is Bastien de Caton, the city coroner, and his new job is to draw portraits of unidentified dead bodies so that the coroner can distribute the drawings and receive payment from relatives who recognize and claim their dead kin. Bastien is also authorized to hold inquests into suspicious deaths, and this part of his job becomes an important plot element. 

     Bastien's workspace is housed in the Necropolis, literally a city of the dead. Here is the moment that Lucian and Bastien first meet: "Winter daylight streamed through the arches to either side of the colonnade, illuminating a thickset man in a heavy wool shirt, leather tunic, and thigh-length boots. He stood square in our path, fists on hips and scowling at us from amid a tangle of sand-colored hair. Fog or steam or smoke, bearing a stench so foul as to leave me unwilling to take another breath, wreathed him as if he were some gatzi lord from Magrog's netherworld. 'You're late.' His voice rumbled the stones." (p. 28) Bastien is a pragmatic, rough Master who at first views Lucian as a "pompous pureblood twit who believes he's been ill-used because he's got to smell shite." (p. 77) Eventually, though, they learn to trust one another and become more like partners than Master and servant.

     On Lucian's first day of work, the body of a young girl is found on the edge of the Cicerons' hirudo. When Lucian draws her portrait, he blacks out momentarily, only to discover on awakening that he has drawn the child in royal garb. Apparently, Lucian has developed the ability to look deeply into a person's life and soul as he is drawing the portraitto see events and objects that he shouldn't be able to see. In other words, his bent for history (which manifests as psychometry) has revived and has combined with his bent for portraiturean unprecedented event that will surely get him put in prison if the Registry learns about it. Lucian surmises "that reaching for the life behind death's mask had roused some fading ember of my second bent." (p. 79) Another anomaly that occurs during his drawing of the child's portrait is described here by Bastien: "Youyour whole selffaded, blurred, and then sharpened up again, over and over, as if you were only partly here, partly elsewhere." (p. 54) Obviously, this phenomenon is related to Lucian's blackouts as he drew the portrait. Two of the novel's primary story lines, then, are Lucian's investigation into the murder of the little girl and his efforts to discover exactly why his second bent has returned and why he is having blackouts. 

     This second story line expands when Lucian begins finding himself in a strange land during the blackouts. When he meets a beautiful, otherworldly woman in that land, she tells him that she and her people are unsure whether to lead him astray or grant him sanctuary in the Everlasting. She goes on to explain that even if they decide to grant him sanctuary, he isn't ready yet because "Thou hast no knowledge of the world." (p. 231) Finally, she tells him that she will welcome him at the end of the Path of the White Hand, but Lucian has no idea what that meansnot yet, anyway.

     Meanwhile, life gets harder for Lucian. He is making very little money now, not enough to support his sister and the household staff. That problem soon goes away, though, when someone burns down his house, killing everyone inside. The Registry blames Lucian for the tragedy and locks him away after a sham of a trial. By this time, it is obvious to Lucian that someone is out to get him, but who? And why? Lucian spends most of this book trying to figure out the answers to those questions, soon learning that he can't trust anyonenot even those he thought were his friends and allies.

The book is divided into four sections:

>> Part I: The Blades of Winter, which takes Lucian from his Registry position to the Necropolis to imprisonment.
>>Part II: The Killing Season, which follows Lucian through his months in the prison until he is finally released.
>>Part III: The Waking Storm, which mostly involves the final parts of the investigation of the child's murder.
>>Part IV: Harsh Magic, which resolves the mystery of the child's murder and the mystery of which Registry members are trying to get Lucian killed and why. The cliff-hanger ending signals the beginning of an entirely new chapter in Lucian's life.
     This is a terrific book with a well-constructed plot that masterfully combines a fascinating mythology, intense drama, well-defined characters, and touches of low, dark humor. The humor comes mostly from the characters who keep the Necropolis running, particularly Bastien and Constance, the sexton's daughter. This is the first time that Lucian has ever come into close contact with ordinaries, and his perception of themand their perceptions of himmake for some entertaining scenes.

     Although Lucian is in his mid-twenties, this is really a coming of age story for him as he delves into his family history, investigates the truth of his memories, begins to test his magical powers, and learns to deal with a diverse group of people (i.e., ordinaries, the Danae, the Cicerons, priestesses, and Navronnian royalty). Although Lucian is heavily weighed down by bad luck and adversity in this novel, Berg always allows a ray of light to break through just when it seems that nothing will save him. She seamlessly weaves these moments into the complex and gripping plot, keeping this reader engrossed throughout. The book ends in a major cliffhanger, and I can hardly wait (a whole year!) to find out what happens next to Lucian, Juli, Bastien, and the rest of this quirky cast of characters.

     Click HERE to go to the page for Dust and Light where you can click on the cover art to read an excerpt.

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