Book: “Whispers of Shadow and Flame” by L. Penelope
Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Griffin, October 2019
Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley
Book Description: The Mantle that separates the kingdoms of Elsira and Lagrimar is about to fall. And life will drastically change for both kingdoms.
Born with a deadly magic she cannot control, Kyara is forced to become an assassin. Known as the Poison Flame in the kingdom of Lagrimar, she is notorious and lethal, but secretly seeks freedom from both her untamed power and the blood spell that commands her. She is tasked with capturing the legendary rebel called the Shadowfox, but everything changes when she learns her target’s true identity.
Darvyn ol-Tahlyro may be the most powerful Earthsinger in generations, but guilt over those he couldn’t save tortures him daily. He isn’t sure he can trust the mysterious young woman who claims to need his help, but when he discovers Kyara can unlock the secrets of his past, he can’t stay away.
Kyara and Darvyn grapple with betrayal, old promises, and older prophecies—all while trying to stop a war. And when a new threat emerges, they must beat the odds to save both kingdoms.
Previously Reviewed: “Song of Blood and Stone”
Review: It’s been quite a while since I reviewed the first book in this series. I remember really enjoying it, but I’ll be honest, I had to go back and read my review to really catch up on the world and characters before requesting this one. However, given how positively I’d reviewed that book, I felt fairly confident in this second one, even if, sadly, it was following a separate set of characters than the ones I had grown to love. And while I did find this a quick read, it didn’t really hit home in the same way as that first entry.
Due to the powerful magic within her, Kyara’s life has not been her own. Instead of choosing her own path, she’s been forced to become an assassin, a notorious one at that, known as the Poison Flame. But when her most recent target turns out to be more than he seems, Kyara sees an opportunity to begin reclaiming her own power. For his part, Darvyn is also uniquely powerful, but has begun to sink under the weight of guilt and regret over those he wasn’t able to save. Together, Kyara and Darvyn will uncover truths and mysteries that have long been kept in the shadow. But to make their way forward, they will have to learn to trust each other.
While this book didn’t hit the same sweet spot as the first one, there were still several things to like about it. For one, I still really enjoy the world-building. The last book really delved into the way this world’s history and the magical barrier that has divided it in two has affected the various groups of people living on either side. We explored how history is told by the winner and how the responsibility for the welfare of people expands beyond borders and one’s own patriotism to one’s own homeland. But by the end of that book, that barrier was coming down. That left a lot of interesting new pathways open for this book to explore, and the worldbuilding and continued fleshing out of the various cultures and peoples of this world didn’t disappoint.
I also still really enjoy Penelope’s writing style. It’s quick, clear, and engaging. There are a number of magical elements and, of course, an entirely fictional world. It takes a strong writer to really ground those sorts of unknowns into an understandable and approachable block of text. Even while some parts of this story didn’t work for me, I still blazed through it in a few short days.
Surprising no one, perhaps, where this book stumbled for me was with the characters. Of course, I knew going in that we’d have a new batch of characters, but I was disappointed to not even see our original two in passing. Beyond that, the way the book is summarized leads readers to believe that the book will unfold in a similar way to the first, alternating between two lead characters’ POV. Sadly, no. There were way more characters than that! Somewhere between four and six, I’d say. Not only do I generally not prefer books with large ensemble casts of POV characters (it takes a really master-level hand at writing to make that many characters feel distinct and worthy of a reader’s interest and investment), but it also reduced the page time for the two characters who were still mean to be read as “main” characters. In the first book, there was plenty of time to become attached and invested in our leads. Here, I found myself really struggling to care overly much about either Kyara or Darvyn.
And while the author’s writing is up to the task of creating vast, complicated worlds and systems, it faltered with characterization. The overall tone of writing didn’t change from character to character, leaving Kyara and Darvyn, very different characters not only because of gender but also life experiences, reading almost identically to one another. There was also another character’s POV chapter that was writing in a completely different tense than the reset of the book, a HUGE pet peeve of mine. It always feels overly tricky and rarely is there any payoff for this choice (a notable exception and an excellent example of intentional use of this writing method would be N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy).
So, while I’m still intrigued by the world and the larger-scope conflict that has been brewing, I struggled to enjoy this book as much as I did the first. I’ll likely continue to the third, however, as I’m curious to see how the bigger mysteries will resolve.
Rating 7: Weak characterization let down a book with strong world-building and magical intrigue.
“Whispers of Shadow and Flame” is on these these Goodreads lists: Black Women Heroines in Urban Fantasy, Paranormal Romance, and Science Fiction and Best Diverse Speculative Fiction.
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