Dust and Light by Carol Berg
Dust and Light by Carol Berg (Roc, 2014) (The Sanctuary Duet 1) is set in the same world as the duology of Flesh and Spirit and Breath and Bone which jointly won the Mythopoeic Award in 2009. In this first-person narrative, we join Lucian de Remeni-Masson as he falls from grace and slowly begins to find his feet again. He’s one of the children of high-status parents who’s never really had to worry about anything. He’s just bumbled happily along, never really feeling under pressure to learn anything or refine his magical skills. There was one minor peccadillo when he went to University. A young girl caught his eye. . . But his father was quick to intervene, smoothed over ruffled feathers, and found him a place where he could draw and paint, working for The PureBlood Registry. His skill, you see, is to use his magic to see the truth of those he draws. Should he see anything too unfortunate, he’s quick to apologise and adjust the picture when he comes back to himself. For the most part, this is a quiet and undemanding role, leaving him plenty of time to enjoy family life.
As in most books of this type, this quiet life is rudely shattered when only he and his younger sister avoid being killed when the rest of the family gathers together in another city. To compound the problems, he quickly find his sinecure at the registry terminated and his contract sold for a fraction of its value to Bastien de Caton, who serves the King as the coroner of Palinur. Going from high privilege to the necropolis is, in itself, an almost insupportable blow to his pride. But when he begins to draw the dead, he’s accused of deliberately underperforming to escape the contract. Of course, this accusation outrages the pompous one, who stoutly defends the quality of his work. Except he’s a little surprised at exactly what he’s been able to draw. There seems to be a lot of detail in the uniforms and style of dress that would only be apparent if he were somehow able to commune with the dead.
The first real sign of trouble comes when he draws a picture of a young girl. The coroner is reluctant to trust the image because it suggests this was a girl of real privilege. Yet, so far as he knows, all the nobility are accounted for. No-one of importance has been reported missing. But when the matter is tested by our hero producing a second drawing, it’s clear this is the drawing of one of the royal bastards. This more formally sets us off on the dual trail. First we have to discover who’s out to wreck the career of our young innocent. Then we have to discover who strangled this girl.
For all this is sold as a fantasy novel, it’s really a political thriller. With the death of the old King of Navronne, the two sons embark on a civil war to decide the question of succession. Over the generations, the families who have been lucky enough to develop magical powers sell their allegiance to whoever is rich enough to pay for them. Obviously, the best work for the nobility. Lucian’s father was a cartographer to the old king. One of the royal sons might wonder whether Lucian might be able to find lost treasures. This sets up a certain tension between some of the nobility who might see people like Lucian as a necessity to progress their own interests, while others see them as dangerous. In theory, the magicians preserve their neutrality by keeping to themselves. This is signalled to the world by their habit of going out in public wearing a mask. They are supposed to fly above the rough and tumble of political life. Except, of course, few can live in a society without being ambitious for power and success. This can mean neutrality is inconvenient. Some will take sides. Others like Lucian who was essentially inexperienced and somewhat naive are potentially just canon fodder, liable to be used and discarded as required. So, this is a form of coming-of-age story in which a young man is stripped of his dignity and slowly comes to realise he must start on a journey, both physical and metaphorical, to discover who he is and what powers he’s able to command if he takes them seriously. The result is both a very pleasing mystery in which a murder must be solved, and a nicely balanced political situation as the various factions try to manoeuvre themselves into the best position. Dust and Light is an impressive start to this latest episode in this fantasy world, leaving everything completely in the balance as we wait for the second instalment due in 2015.