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.
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.