Turning Darkness Into Light by Marie Brennan

I’m very grateful to Julia Bradley from Titan Books for an advance copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review

Publisher – Titan

Published – Out Now

Price - £7.99

As the renowned granddaughter of Isabella Camherst (Lady Trent, of the riveting and daring Draconic adventure memoirs) Audrey Camherst has always known she, too, would want to make her scholarly mark upon a chosen field of study.

When Lord Gleinleigh recruits Audrey to decipher a series of ancient tablets holding the secrets of the ancient Draconian civilisation, she has no idea that her research will plunge her into an intricate conspiracy, one meant to incite rebellion and invoke war. Alongside dearest childhood friend and fellow archaeologist Kudshayn, she must find proof of the conspiracy before it’s too late.

NB – I’ve not read all of the Lady Trent Memoirs just Book 1 so there may be spoilers I here I am unaware of. This book however has compelled me to now read the rest!

If I mention archaeologist, it’s tempting to go to a default image of you know who with the hat and the whip.  Certainly, he gets the rugged glamourous side of the job but when we get down to it when does he do the actual hard work?  Understanding an object, it’s history and linking it to a entire culture or its mythology is not best investigated behind a rolling stone ball I admit but it’s findings can be just as dramatic an d change the world. We also now know that it’s just as the important to know the motives of those writing the history books as for some history is just another form of propaganda.  Marie Brennan with her latest novel Turning Darkness into Light manages to discuss all of this within a brilliantly told tale set within her Memoirs of Lady Trent universe.

Set over 40 years after the Memoirs we now focus on a new chapter in the world. Here humans live in a different world – no England no France and months are even dated differently. As part of Lady Trent’s exploit’s forty years ago humanity has now realised that as well as the lesser dragons that inhabit parts of the world there is also a draconic civilisation they had no memory of who have been living in hiding (imagine two meter tall humanoid dragons with wings that talk and think). A settlement known as the Sanctuary of Wings was established and soon a conference between the world powers will discuss if the Sanctuary should be under human control or have the right to their own independence. Into this situation comes news that an archaeological dig has found a site from the draconic age and seems to have some important clay tablets. The dig’s benefactor the ambitious Lord Gleinleigh has asked specifically for Lady Trent’s granddaughter Audrey (herself an upcoming archaeologist expert in draconic history to decipher what could be an earth-shattering discovery. Audrey goes to stay with her employer but finds many other factions are getting interested in what secrets she learns.

This was an amazing novel it reminds me strangely of a beautiful meringue cake; extremely tasty, apparently light but you admire the chef’s skill, talent and intelligence in creating a work of art with a lot of depth. This novel has a whole host of ingredients that I was not expecting would move me as much as they did. I think one key element is the characters; our main point of view is Audrey who is clearly intelligent, independent and yet also aware of the shadow of her family. A lot of the novel is told through her point of view, so we do get to understand her inner mind a lot – she’s engaging, brave and also yet to be tested as well as carrying scars from the last person she trusted. This means that when the situation gets tense, she can be reckless and that doesn’t always result in a lucky victory. Her personal story is learning she can rely on others and sometimes to think about the ramifications of her actions. 

However, unlike the Lady Trent series Brennan has opted for a very different way of storytelling with multiple narratives (more on this shortly) but she introduces two other very different characters who also share their thoughts and feelings on proceedings. The choices on these are telling as Audrey (although of mixed race) is still a privileged wealthy member of society. Helping her in her investigations are Kudshayn an archaeologist and also a priest for the Draconean people who for most humans is exotic, difficult to relate to and possibly someone to be feared. For him these tablets offer a personal insight into his own people’s history and beliefs – and he finally gets decide to tell the story.  Also, Lord Gleinleigh has given Audrey his young niece Cora to work with. Cora is a fascinating individual who as we see with her amazing factual memory, trouble with emotional and literal cues would appear to be showing some signs of autism yet adds skills to the team and learns more from them. Watching how these three characters interact and importantly learn to understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses really gives the novel a lot of energy. We want these three remarkable people to learn to work together and succeed.

This nicely leads to what I found the most remarkable part of the book. Usually research scenes tend to be info dumping elements quickly dispensed with ahead of action sequence after action sequence.  While this is not without scenes of adventure particularly when Audrey has to deal with the groups who feels the Draconic people and their land should be eliminated; the core scenes that drive the book are all focused how these clay tablets get their secrets unwrapped after thousands of years – one key section of the novel is incredibly tense yet hangs upon differing translations!  It’s a delight that this is a fantasy novel not afraid to show the beauty and excitement of science and thinking things through.  Brennan really times the flow of these sequences beautifully so this tale is the adventure; that can be the quest to translate the right word; find supporting evidence or trying to put a modern world understanding on ancient myth.

I really liked how we got to understand the science of archaeology – it’s not a quick 10-minute scene it’s weeks of hard work, debate and study.  This is where I really valued having Kudshayn’s voice – this doesn’t make this a standard tale of European scholars taking on other world’s voices here Kudshayn gets to show us how his people see the texts not as just a piece of history but one that speaks and also challenges their version of the world. That adds to the running theme of countries all having their own foundation myths and that those inside and those outside may see in those myths an explanation for the people we now know (and use it for good or ill). The novel isn’t about the dismantling of beliefs but instead helping us understand how beliefs still shape our worldviews.  It helps though that the mythological story in question is itself absolutely fascinating.  We are looking at the dawning of the draconian people and its founders.  Elements of which will chime with many human texts which I think also says something about how all our minds work but this story and it’s reveals really do pull you along as you try to decode the potential real history that sits underneath the legends.

I think if you’ve never read Marie Brennan before this would be a safe place to start as it for me clearly signals the start of a new era in the universe. There are not many details given away about the previous books; although they’re all now high on my to read list, the book does not punish you for coming in late. In fact, I’m very keen to see where the series goes as it teases a number of developments where the past may be about to further unveil to the present. For a fantasy novel with a difference that promotes intelligence, the power of myth and also being prepared to always seek the truth this is a fantastic start to the new era.