This was originally posted on Love in the Margins.
I was swayed to give this fantasy trilogy a try when I learned that one of the books would have a trans woman pov character. The numerous characters of colour, including several pov characters, were an added bonus. The books are written in third person limited voice.
The one character who ties the three books together, is a pale northern spy, Isyllt Iskaldur, who in The Drowning City travels south to Symir to incite a rebellion. It’s a scheme to direct the Assari emperor’s attention elsewhere to and protect her home Selafai. With her travels two mercenaries: Adam who isn’t quite a human, and Xinai Lin who is returning home after having escaped the massacre of her family. Because of restless ghosts, Xinai, the second narrator, finds herself tangled with one of the rebelling groups. The third narrator, Zhirin Laii, helps Isyllt to connect with another faction.
I really liked the first book of the trilogy because of its tight pacing and the focus on plot. Also actual, lasting consequences, I liked those. There were some awkward parts, which reeked of infodumping, but they were quickly bypassed. There was just enough worldbuilding to make me curious and leave me wanting for more. After all, I had two more books to look forward to for further character building and expansion of the world.
In The Bone Palace Isyllt has returned home and is stuck in her day job as an investigator for the crown. She starts to enquire into a murder of a prostitute’s, and is pulled into a conspiracy against King Mathiros. Isyllt is made to choose between her oaths to the throne and her old mentor-slash-lover.
The three narrators of the second book are Isyllt and Kiril, the pupil and master, and Savedra Severos of kinky hair, who escaped her fate as a prostitute—because what else is a transgender character to do in a thinly veiled real world—due to her family connections and by becoming crown prince Nikos’ lover. She is also, a very dear friend of Nikos’ wife, princess Ashlin.
This is where it all falls apart and moves firmly into the theory good, practice not territory. Instead of continuing with her strength as a plotter, Downum writes a story that relies on strong characterisations, which then are notably absent. Character continuity is sacrificed for a beautiful turn of a phrase and those very word choices make me doubt the author’s ability to portray a trans character. It felt like I was always outside looking in and seeing Savedra’s male body rather than being inside her head hearing a woman’s thoughts. And I don’t think Downum’s version of a first person voice would have helped.
In The Kingdoms of Dust Isyllt travels to meet an old friend from book one. Their journey takes them south to possibly save the very empire they tried to undermine only a few years earlier.
Apart from the bisexuality default—makes reading easier if that’s what you assume for every character—established in the second book, there wasn’t much I liked about the final book. In a word, it’s a mess. There are too many pov characters and once again actual character development and worldbuilding are ignored. There isn’t even a hint of the strong plotting I was hoping would make a comeback. It got so bad that I didn’t even care about the characters I’d loved in the first book.
It made me angry to see all the elements for a strong plot heavy story wasted in an aimless character study that didn’t have actual character development. It also became impossible to ignore the Mary Sue’ness of the main character as once again another man succumbed to her charm. The ending could have saved a lot, but it didn’t.
Final Assessment: Read The Drowning City as a standalone book (sans HEA) and skip the rest. It got a B from me whereas The Bone Palace and The Kingdoms of Dust get a D and an F respectively.
Series: The Necromancer Chronicles