Lightborn by Alison Sinclair

Lightborn book cover
Rating 8.9/10
@you light up my life@

As I said at the end of the previous review, given how Darkborn ended; or rather didn’t, I literally picked up Lightborn the second I finished reviewing the last book. Fortunately, I was not at all disappointed.

With her husband Balthasar and the mage Ishmael di Studier off to investigate the threat in the borderlands, Telmaine Hearne finds herself assisting the ruthless spymaster Vlademer Plantajita by using her unwelcome powers to scout the Archduke’s court for Shadowborn magic. Meanwhile, on the other side of Sunrise, the Lightborn prince Isadore is assassinated. This isn’t unusual, after all, the Lightborn regularly practice righteous deposition, the legal assassination of any ruler deemed unfit to rule. What is unusual however, is that Isadore was despatched by a magic which annulled the spelled lights in his sleeping chamber, causing him to melt (as Lightborn do in darkness. With Isadore’s son, the 19 year old Fejelis now prince, Balthasar’s childhood friend Floria Whitehand finds herself suspected as an accomplice in the murder, forcing her to free to the uncertain safety of the Darkborn court. As Tammorn, disgraced mage and Fejelis mentor tries to help the young prince survive the web of competing factions and further assassination attempts, events spiral into chaos which will pit Darkborn against Lightborn, and machine against magic.

It’s the rare author who can successfully write a sequel which completely drops the story of some of its major protagonists and turns the action entirely elsewhere without running up a little reader resentment, especially if we’re introduced to new perspectives in the meantime. In the case of Lightborn however, it was already fairly obvious that we were essentially only seeing half a story given the necessary divide between Darkborn and Lightborn, so while I was a little sorry not to catch up with old friends, at the same time I was eager to explore a world we’d only seen glimpses of so far.

Where her depiction of Darkborn society had a few holes in it, (notably around sightlessness), the Lightborn culture is quite fascinating. It might have been a little too easy with the Darkborn’s rigidly polite society with its emphasis on female modesty and passivity, to depict the Lightborn as a haven of freedom and fairness, Sinclair does something different. Even though the Lightborn might be a little more equalitarian in gender terms, they live in a world which is almost entirely exploited by the mage temple’s monopoly on magical contracts, necessary for the Lightborn’s very survival, and where unstable factional vying for power is such a matter of course that (just as in Frank Herbert’s Dune), there is an etiquette and established order around assassination, with poisoning over breakfast being seen as a regular occurrence.

I do wish that as with the Darkborn, Sinclair had given us a little more time at the start of the book to see this society in detail before she started the radical factionalism and political game playing, indeed, just as she began with Balthasar in the first book and only introduced the Darkborn’s politics with Telmaine, so it probably would’ve been a little more helpful for us to see several of the major players a bit before Sinclair started throwing names and factional allegiances at us, particularly since things don’t stay static for long. I also slightly wish Sinclair had taken a little more time to show us a bit of the wider attitudes and customs of the Lightborn, since while we get some tantalising hints (such as red being the colour of mourning since black would cause too many painful shadows), it would’ve been nice to see a little more.

That being said, this is unquestionably a character driven story more than it is a pure exploration of its world, and character wise Sinclair is as always entirely on top of her game.

Floria Whitehand remains the tough and likable assassin we’d seen in the first book, however seeing a few details of her life, from her work as a bodyguard and food-taster for the prince to her rather laconic and no nonsense wit made her a more fleshed out character and an even more unique contrast with the gentle physician Balthasar. I was a little sorry that for a large part of the story Floria found herself stuck in the Darkborn court, where she literally was locked up and unable to act, although this did lead to an interesting confrontation with Telmaine.

Fejelis is our first noble character, and it is from his perspective that we learn most about the Lightborn court with its rivalries and intrigues. One thing I particularly appreciated with Fejelis, is that often he would describe a character in glowing terms and then still perceive them as a potential threat, since in a world where factions could rally around particularly charismatic targets, noting that someone was likable or accomplished could be as much fair assessment of a potential enemy, as it could be admiration of a friend. Indeed, while Sinclair has her share of scumbags and hard liners in all factions, I found it quite notable just how much of the action here occurred through simple misunderstandings, or via one person accidently affecting another’s unrelated actions. This is particularly seen in Fejelis relationship with his younger brother Onlonjis, who he both wishes to be close to as a brother, and yet perceives as a threat since Onlonjis is favoured for the princedom by his mother’s southern faction.

Tammorn is generally our perspective character on all things magical, as well as serving as Fejelis surrogate father. Like Balthasar he is that rarest of literally creations, a truly decent man, with his life shaped by the domineering and haughty mage temple, and his master, the kindly but erratic mage Lukefer.

Telmaine remains a deeply flawed character and thus extremely captivating, indeed I found it interesting that she would; justifiably, chafe against the restrictions imposed upon women by Darkborn society, and yet be quick to bristle when her status as “a lady” was not being respected. Indeed, her ongoing and complex relationship with Vlademer was always an interesting one, especially since Vlademer was one of the very few people not to dismiss her as a woman, and yet was quite prepared to do anything for the protection of the Archduke, including using her powers for his own ends. While I admit at times Telmaine’s attempts to juggle propriety, and an attitude which Floria rather accurately describes as prickly were exasperating, they always were at the least understandable and fascinating to watch, as well as providing Telmaine the most chances to develop as a character.

The plot here is a complex one, replete with misunderstandings, coincidences and reversals of fortune, Sinclair is obviously an intelligent writer who plainly expects her readers to keep up with her, especially in the way that she does not reiterate plot details from two sides, meaning that if we hear an event has taken place from one character’s perspective, another character’s perspective will show the consequences of that event, rather than simply repeat or reiterate it. Here indeed, her style and her frank discussion of character emotions and viewpoints was actually a benefit, since though she has many characters, she’s always careful to give each of them enough gravity and presence to be identifiable, and also to let them be human enough to act in ways you might not expect. I was quite surprised that some of the returning characters from Darkborn, such as Telmaine’s unpleasantly authoritarian sister Mariven proved to possess hidden depths, even whilst remaining very much themselves. This is because even though we have such a plethora of characters, none of them are simply background or one note, indeed in many ways most of the secondary cast were complex and nuanced enough to be protagonists in their own right, likely why I have seen several reviews which lament Sinclair’s lack of character exploration, though to me this was more a mark of an author who realises that even the spear carriers might be carrying their spears for a reason.

Heavily political though the plot was, the politics are always of the most brutal sort, indeed by the end of the book I was almost getting the feeling that nobody could sit down for breakfast without something going horribly wrong, particularly because Sinclair isn’t afraid to have bad things happen to principle, or even beloved secondary characters, and there are definitely more than a few shocks here. It’s also notable that though Shadowborn magic does play its part in the plot, the actual Shadowborn themselves remain even more an unseen presence than they were in the last volume, indeed, seeing the mistakes made when characters act without the information that there might be a force at work stirring up the conflicts makes the book both extremely tragic, and highly compelling.

Unfortunately with the lack of overall detail and the need to rapidly introduce so much factional byplay, I slightly missed a few more intimate perspectives, indeed Telmaine’s daughters only appeared in a general skim, whilst Tammorn’s wife and son remained entirely unseen. Though it is a credit to Sinclair’s skill as an author that she was able to so briefly detail characters feelings and circumstances, at the same time, a quieter interlude or two showing her characters daily lives might have both given us a wider idea of the world, and also made the action a little less dense. Indeed, while the general pace doesn’t feel rushed, the sheer amount of information and events to get through is rather large, so some more contemplative moments now and again would have been welcome.

The one other minor problem with the massive political subtext, is that there were a couple of occasions where the very fact that characters had alternative motives robbed an underlying action of its force. For example, we’re quite aware early on that Fejelis does not actually suspect Floria of his father’s murder, which undercuts any tension from Floria being accused. Similarly, later in the book a character is slated for execution and actually goes to their fate knowing that they’re about to escape, and since the method of execution in question is a pretty gruesome one, it’s rather strange to see it be entirely unthreatening.

One thing which was interesting was the way Sinclair dealt with the power levels of her mages. Whilst Telmaine’s magic appeared a bit too effortlessly awesome in the previous book, here, when we see mages who have made themselves immortal, teleport vast distances or can craft items that can literally stop bullets or neutralise poisons, we actually realise that Telmaine’s skills really were just as untrained as we were told. While I do wish she’d given a bit more detail about how magic both works and feels, rather than just talking about someone “reaching out with magic”, or “feeling magic.” At the same time, much as with details of her world or domestic aspects of her characters, the descriptions of magic here are very much tied to the progression of the plot and her character’s travails. It’s also quite a twist on the usual formula of having the character’s magic be a get out of trouble free card, especially when Telmaine’s magic in particular; causes as many problems as it prevents.

As with Darkborn, the book does not so much end as simply finish. I appreciated the way that the latter section finally both got out of the city of Minhorne, and let us see the relationship of prince Fejelis and his brother in a little more detail, indeed in some ways the book does slow down a little towards the end, though I would see this more as giving us room to breathe and take stock than a slackening in intensity, especially given how grim things are getting at this point. Again, those who are looking for a complete story will be disappointed, but those who have the third volume on hand will definitely not be, particularly given some hints we receive of what might have been happening to Balthasar and Ishmael in the borderlands in the meantime, events which we will hopefully see in detail in the next book.

I think this is the first time in my book reviewing career when the second volume of a trilogy has received precisely the same mark as the first, but in terms of quality this makes sense. Just as the first book would’ve received a much higher rating were it not for Sinclair’s skating over the issue of a sightless society, so would Lightborn but for the sheer density of material and lack of quieter moments. That being said, for a series to maintain this sort of standard over two volumes is an incredible achievement (I freely admit I am hard to please), and as before, when I finish writing this I’ll be diving straight onto volume three, looking forward to a rich and epic conclusion.

This Lightborn book review was written by

All reviews for: Darkborn Trilogy

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