Review: The politics and fireballs of A Magic of Dawn

A richly detailed world, deliciously grey characters, and a braid of compelling politics and scheming make A Magic of Dawn a great read.

S. L. Farrell’s latest novel is the conclusion to the Nessantico Cycle, revealing the final fates of the characters introduced and followed through the first two novels. Not being a direct continuation of events, however, it certainly stands well alone, and needs not even a preamble to be enjoyed.

The city of Nessantico sits at the center of world events. A powerful and driven cleric is bent on revolutionizing the church the hard way.

A newly widowed engineer has found a way to harness the power of “black sand” to launch small projectiles in a way never before seen.

The Queen of the land must find balance in her personal life, while her exiled son, now ruler of his own portion of the lands, must decide how to treat with his mother and rival for the Golden Throne.

That son’s bastard daughter strives to find a way to meet her father. And, across the sea, a culture of fierce warriors prepares to assault the mainland under the guidance of a powerful seer with ulterior motives.

The story lines blend and weave adroitly, with the perfect point of view for each; every line bleeding into the others, sometimes in delightfully surprising ways. Farrell is never afraid to show the audience all the angles they need, resisting the temptation to hide lots of information from the reader, an issue which currently plagues much of modern story-telling.

The characters here are richly wrought and finely detailed. In the best tradition of modern fantasy, we don’t really see a lot of white hats and black hats in this novel. All of the focus characters have strong motivations, and some of them are certainly put at odds, but all of them have real emotions and reasoning, and all of them are sympathetic.

The magic system presented is clever, and serves more than just the plot at hand, becoming part of the mythology itself, as any good magic system should. Magic and its use comes in many forms, and each form has its trade-offs. Further, the use of it is far from free, as the characters frequently exhaust themselves, and do harm when it is not intended. That said, its use is not gratuitous, and often the way each character uses his magic is an important part of the character’s development and place in the story.

The mythology and history of Nessantico’s story-world are clearly deep and nearly infinitely interesting. I found myself at some points reading just to appreciate the detail put into the renaissance world, and I think I would get a lot of enjoyment out of simply reading an in-universe history book from Nessasntico. Of course, I’m a bit of a sucker for intricate world-building, so read into that what you will.

The only issue with the book, and I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, is the nomenclature. Lots of the people and places of Nessantico have titles and names which reflect some linguistic detail in the mythology, which is consistent, and does increase the depth of the mythology to an extent. However, I occasionally found myself wishing that a few of the names and titles were easier to pronounce in my head. I would have enjoyed the book as much if the kings had been called kings, and the wizards had been called wizards, and so-forth. Even simple words like ‘mother’ and ‘father’ are oddly reformed in this world. 

As with most such things, however, the issue disappears after the first few chapters, and the terms become natural and right within the world. I only mention it as a warning to some readers who might, like me, come into this novel without the benefit of the first two as vocabulary primers. Don’t let the language turn you away, as soon enough you forget that the terms on the first page were at all confusing or unfamiliar.

Farrell’s style is at once wholly unique, and reminiscent of modern fantasy masters like George R. R. Martin and R. A. Salvatore. In all, it’s just the kind of fantasy that diehard fantasy fans are always looking for, with the length and breadth to please even the toughest fans.

The paperback edition of A Magic of Dawn is now available from DAW books.