Against the Light: Promising premise, slow plot

fantasy book reviews Dave Duncan Against the Lightfantasy audiobook reviews Dave Duncan Agains the LightAgainst the Light by Dave Duncan

The forces of the Earth Mother are being oppressed by the Hierarchy, which is guided by the light, in Dave Duncan’s Against the Light. The Children of the Mother are being hunted down and taken into custody where they are tortured by dungeon masters that recall the Spanish Inquisition. Sadly, as Rollo Woodbridge finds out, the Hierarchy has many weapons in addition to surprise in their arsenal. Against such determined zealots, how can Children of the Mother survive?

Unlike the followers of the Light, the Children have magical gifts. Some followers can “inspire” emotions in the people around them. “Mastery” is more or less like the Imperius curse. Some of the children have the ability to light things on fire and others can pick locks. Others, like Rollo, can see the future. All in all, it’s a pretty recognizable magic system.

Much of the setting recalls Feudal Europe, and trouble begins when one zealot of the Hierarchy — who actually has a “talent” that allows him to light fires — burns Earl Woodbridge’s keep, killing Woodbridge and all of his servants. His children — who are all extremely “talented” — are determined to exact revenge.

Conflict follows.

Although the premise of Against the Light seems promising, I found the plot quite slow. It seemed like Duncan spent more time on the sexual dynamics that accompany talents like “inspiration” than he did advancing the plot. Fine. However, even when the plot was moving, I found that I struggled to connect with Duncan’s characters. For example, when Maddy Woodbridge happily takes up prostitution in order to avenge her parents, I found my ability to suspend disbelief waning. I also found myself thinking that a family and nation of talented children could do much more with their magical gifts than Duncan suspected.

Against the Light did not answer questions that constantly came to mind while I was reading the novel. The Hierarchy does not perform miracles, but the Children of the Mother can. So how did the Children lose their standing in the country? While zealots might well overlook empirical evidence, surely moderates would remember the way that the Children of the Mother miraculously healed their injuries. The Hierarchy begins with one man’s strange dream, and spreads across the country, snuffing out the followers of the miracle-performing Children of the Mother.

Against the Light is the latest book in the prolific Dave Duncan’s oeuvre, and perhaps it will be expanded to develop more twists now that the dynamics of this world have been established. However, although the premise of the series has potential, I struggled with the novel. I found the characters flat and difficult to believe in, and this kept me from engaging with the plot. Readers with an enthusiasm for religious persecution narratives might well do better.

I listened to Brilliance Audio’s production of Against the Light, which was read with great enthusiasm by Ralph Lister. Lister invests a remarkable amount of personality into his characters, and his portrayal of torturers makes for a particularly disgusting reading experience. I was annoyed by Lister’s willingness to signal to the reader through specific mannerisms (simpering, for example) that certain characters are not to be trusted. Duncan has a straightforward prose style, and Lister is happy to enhance it with his very stylized reading.

Against the Light — (2012) Publisher: The Hierarchy, high priests of the religious order the Light, has installed King Ethan as the monarchical figurehead, ruling both the magical kingdom of Albi and its predominant religion. Scattered throughout the land, worshippers in the old ways of the Earth Mother are persecuted as heretics. And when young missionary student Rollo Woodbridge returns home to Albi, he is immediately arrested for heresy and treason, setting off a chain of events that plunges the land into utter chaos. The Hierarchy has more treacherous motives, however, and when Rollo is rescued from jail, his family’s home is destroyed — but Rollo and his siblings are left alive. While Rollo tries diplomacy to end the religious and political conflict, his brother and sister swear vengeance. With the hours to deliverance counting down and their lives hanging in the balance, they must decide whether to stay and fight or leave Albi forever in the suspenseful, action-packed Against the Light.

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RYAN SKARDAL is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF. Ryan and his wife make their home in New Jersey, where they read alongside several cats and two highly disobedient huskies.

View all posts by Ryan Skardal

One comment

  1. Yes, Ralph Lister is a very dynamic reader. I love him in some roles and loathe him in others. He reads with a lot of passion and you can’t help but have your feelings about the characters be influenced by the way he interprets them.

    I know that some narrators discuss this with the author, if possible, so that they make sure they interpret the character the way the author wants it done, but still I prefer for the narrator to remain in the background and not to influence the reading.

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