Bright Ruin (Dark Gifts, 3)
Pan (Macmillan), 26 July 2018
I'm grateful to the publisher for a review copy of Bright Ruin (and a pretty postcard signed by Vic herself).
I sometimes get sent books for review that are later episodes in a series I haven't been reading. Generally I don't review these, for two reasons. First, who would I be reviewing for? Generally if readers are following a series they will know to read the next. People probably won't want to read the third book in a trilogy first, so I assume they will be less interested in a review of a later book than of the first.
Secondly, if I haven't read the earlier books, how will I know what to say? How to avoid spoilers for the earlier books and ignorant comments about plot points that came up in the earlier books ("Character X seems very two dimensional and engaged with those around her" when actually X suffered a terrible trauma in Book 1 and is slowly healing).
I still hold to these reasons, but am ignoring them for Bright Ruin. Not because of that postcard (or not solely because of it...) but because the synopsis of this book, and the snippets of reviews for the earlier books, just looked so promising.
A shattered country
A world-changing magic
Magically gifted aristocrats rule Britain, and the people must serve them. But rebellion now strikes at the heart of the old order. Abi has escaped public execution, thanks to an unexpected ally. Her brother Luke is on the run with Silyen Jardine, the most mysterious aristocrat of all. And as political and magical conflicts escalate, each must decide how far they’ll go for their beliefs.
Dragons clash in the skies, as two powerful women duel for the soul of Britain. A symbol of government will blaze as it dies, and doors between worlds will open – and close forever. But the battle within human hearts will be the fiercest of all.
I'll try to avoid spoilers and ignorance (but beg forgiveness in advance if I malign a much-loved character). I hope I have something useful to say for, at least, those who haven't been following the trilogy, that might encourage them to go and read from the start (which is the right thing to do here - this isn't anything like a standalone and the story follows pretty seamlessly on from the previous book, Tarnished City).
So. Bright Ruin is set in a recognisably modern and contemporary UK. There have clearly been a few different twists to history and some names and details of buildings and locations are different, but most of what you'd expect to see is there, from tech to fashion. The big difference is that power is very much in the hands of a privileged self-serving clique who bend everything to their own advantage... sorry, I should have said, a privileged self-serving clique who use magic and bend everything to their own advantage.
Magic here is referred to as "Skill" (a nice look back to 80s slang, perhaps!) and those who have it (the so-called "Equals") boy do they think a lot of themselves. They're all Skilful this and Skilful that and Skill-filled the other, using it for power over others or simply for fun.
Oh, and they have slaves.
In this world, citizens who don't have Skill are obliged to work as slaves. I think (and this is something that, obviously, would have been explained earlier) there are limited terms for this but, still, slavery. Bad for everyone: awful for the slaves, corrupting for the masters and, even, undermining of the economy (it's pointed out here that "commoner" businesses have failed because they couldn't compete against free labour). There is a rebellion brewing against this system, but it's up against not only an authoritarian government but one backed by Skill. Much of this book is about people - both Equal and commoner - caught up in this rebellion, and that story is, very, organically one with events in the first two books which are referred back to and underlie differences in attitudes explored here.
All of that is never explained in detail, but the gist of it is clear: the trajectory of the rebellion, led by Equals, was wrong and it needs to be driven by those oppressed by the system, not by those who benefit from it, however well-meaning. The events that unfold here only back up that message (though it would be spoilers to say exactly how).
This is the part of the story concerning (mainly) Equal Midsummer Zelston (I love James' flair for names!) and commoner Abi Hadley. The viewpoint moves between characters both on the side of the rebellion and in the government, so we see the moves and counter moves in what has become a fairly desperate struggle. I enjoyed the way James gives each characters their own motivation - there are "villains" here with whom one might sympathise, to a degree, rebels with whom one might not agree, and plenty of in-between figures whose sympathies are dubious.
Prominent among this last group is Silken. An Equal, he has high connections on the government side but who mainly seems to be interested in Skill for its own sake (and in Luke, Abi's brother). James writes well about how Skill is used, the sheer thrill and exhilaration of the thing (this is one of the reasons one might almost sympathise with Bouda Matravers, security chief in the government but who is discovering what she can do with her Skill and who thrills as she draws up water from the rivers and wells below London, almost becoming one with the city through its hidden veins). This theme bleeds into the second main thread of the story, largely featuring Silyen and Luke, which is an exploration of the origin and history of Skill. While that is, in the end, pertinent to the fate of the rebellion for much of the story it seemed like a side issue, interesting through the subject was. I think (I hope) that James might be setting up potential sequels here, involving some characters who feature relatively briefly.
Overall this was a well-written, suspenseful and engaging fantasy with credible characters and a well-developed setting. I'd strongly recommend the trilogy as a whole, if you haven't read the earlier books, and if you have but have any doubts about the conclusion, I'd say - READ THIS.
For more information about Vic James and her books, see the Pan website here.