Turning Darkness Into Light

by Marie Brennan
August 20, 2019 · Tor Books
Science Fiction/Fantasy

Turning Darkness Into Light is a new standalone sequel to the Memoirs of Lady Trent series by Marie Brennan. It would be difficult for a reader to jump into this book without having read at least one of the Lady Trent books (for one thing, you have to know that Draconeans are a sentient species closely related to dragons). That series starts with A Natural History of Dragons and it is AMAZING. I admit to bias in my reviews because the author has always been very sweet to me at conventions even though the first time I met her I was so excited that I choked on a cracker. Transparency in everything, that’s my watchword.

The main character in this book is Audrey Camherst. She is Lady Trent’s granddaughter and idolizes her famous grandmother (as do we all, because Lady Trent is badass). Audrey studies ancient Draconean history with specialities in archeology and linguistics. She is hired by the smarmy Lord Gleinleigh to translate some tablets. Audrey enlists the help of her Draconean friend Kudshayn. He has known her since she was a small child, and he describes her as “my sister from another egg.” She also enlists Gleinleigh’s ward, Cora, a young woman who has grown up with minimal social interaction since the death of her parents when she was ten years old.

The Lady Trent series involved travel and adventure as well as linguistics, archeology, and other sciences. Turning Darkness is about the not-so-glamorous aspects of these sciences. Most of the story involves people staring at tablets for weeks on end and trying to copy them, translate them, and understand their deeper meanings. This is not what I’d call fast-paced action. However, it does involve interesting character interaction and stories within stories (we get to read the story that is inscribed on the tablets). Very slowly we discover that Audrey, Kudshayn, and Cora are caught in the midst of political and academic intrigue.

The story is told in a series of letters, notes, journal entries, translations, and articles. While Audrey is the clear protagonist, other characters also express their points of view in their own journal entries or letters, which means often the reader knows something that other characters do not. It lacks a strong sense of forward drive, especially in the first half. On the other hand, you get a good sense of how people work together to solve both personal and  academic problems.

In my opinion, the most interesting character is Cora, who gets the least amount of page time. Cora is never labelled in any way, but she read to me as being neurodivergent. Cora is direct and persistent, which cut through the attempts of others to be discreet, or evasive, or private. Cora also provides a reason for exposition, since she is new to the art of translation, and has never interacted with a Draconean before and needs to learn their body language and etiquette. Kudashayn is, of course, also fascinating.

This points to the book’s biggest problem (other than slow pacing, which is either a feature or a bug depending on how much you like watching scholarship happen – I liked it quite a bit). The narrator, Audrey, is relatable, but she’s the least interesting character in the book (with the exception of the one-dimensional villains).

I found myself caring very much about Kudashayn, a character with an unusual way of seeing the world and a character who is in a vulnerable position at all times. I cared enormously for Cora, for similar reasons. I wanted to hear more about Cora’s eventual fate and felt short-changed by the lack of resolution given to her. The one character I didn’t care much about was Aubrey. She’s young, impulsive, has a lot to prove, and is very confused by her feelings for a hot male academic with no morals. She’s a brilliant scholar, and her actions, though sometimes foolish, are understandable. She’s just not interesting.

Given my enjoyment of the scholarship, the world-building, the mythology that unfolds, and the political intrigue, I’ll snap any forthcoming sequel up in a heartbeat. I love the world in the Lady Trent books. However, I don’t suggest this book as a gateway into the series. Start way back with A Natural History of Dragons and work your way through it. You won’t be sorry.

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