While I was aware of this book through the enthusiastic reviews I read from my fellow bloggers, I had not managed to add it to my reading queue yet, so that when the first posts announcing the second volume of the series started to appear I decided it was high time for me to read The Last Sun.
The premise for the story is very intriguing: the people of Atlantis did not vanish under the ocean as uncounted myths tell us, but rather survived a catastrophic conflict and established a new settlement in Nantucket, where they were able to thrive and where the rest of the world – our mundane world – is quite aware of them. Atlantean society is based on a sort of feudal stratification, where the ruling families take on the names and qualities of the Tarot’s Arcana, and magic is an everyday occurrence, stored in objects called sigils that can be imbued with any kind of supernatural attributes to be used as necessity dictates, especially in combat. Yes, because this is a brutal culture, the violence barely masked by its sophistication and flaunted riches: Houses can effect hostile – and ruthless – takeovers on other Houses, the only requirement being a notification of their intention (how civilized…), and indeed the novel starts with one such vicious action in which the main character plays an important part.
Rune St. John, only survivor of Sun House – decimated twenty years prior by its rivals – is now working for the powerful Tower, and after the successful coup on the Lovers’ premises he’s tasked by Lord Tower to find Addam St. Nicholas, the missing heir of House Judgment, who disappeared in mysterious circumstances. Together with his Companion Brand – a human bonded to him from infancy as bodyguard and partner – Rune will need to navigate the complex Atlantean politics as his investigation reveals unexpected twists and plots within plots that are more far-reaching than anyone might have suspected. Facing violence, perverted magic and terrifying creatures, the two of them, and the allies they gather along the way, will find their work cut out for them as they try to unravel the complicated twists of a conspiracy that might have escaped even the control of its designers.
As I expected from the reviews I read, the world-building for The Last Sun is quite amazing, starting with the new incarnation of Atlantis itself: the descriptions made me think of a cross between Hogwarts and Blade Runner’s L.A. and there is a definite feel of unexplored layers here, as the tantalizing hints about the past offer just enough to whet one’s appetite without fully satisfying it. Atlantean society is a fascinating mix of complex customs and liberal attitudes, where no choice is barred, be it sartorial or sexual or whatever one might think of. Another expected detail, and one I quite enjoyed, came from the constant banter between characters, particularly between Rune and Brand whose partnership/brotherhood is delightful and offers a great deal of humor in a situation that moves toward darker and darker shades as the story progresses.
Yet, despite all of those positive traits, The Last Sun is not devoid of problems, some of which managed to spoil the story’s overall effect, progressively scaling down my initial rating of the book as the cons started to overshadow the pros. The most glaring of those problems is the portrayal of female characters – what few of them are included, that is, because there is a conspicuous scarcity of women in this book, and they are either placed in a menial role, like Rune and Brand’s housekeeper Queenie, or are distant, cold figures like House heads. The only woman who appears in a more substantial way is Ella, sister of the missing Addam St. Nicholas: a girl suffering from anorexia and very low self-esteem, who is ultimately revealed as a far-too-easily deceived fool. For a society depicted as broad-minded and unconventional I would have expected a more balanced portrayal of its citizens instead of this all-male focus on characters, no matter how interesting they proved to be.
The worse drawback, however, comes from the relentless action sequences which succeed each other with almost no respite, turning into magical wrestling matches that after a while lose their novelty appeal to become almost… ritualistic, for want of a better word, and progressively less engaging. The magic, as fascinating as it is with the use of sigils, ends up shadowing individual abilities or stamina and turns any fight into a contest where the biggest, baddest and more powerful sigils win; to compound this aspect there is the parallel use of healing magic, acting as a deus-ex-machina in repairing whatever injury, no matter how grievous, and so removing any sort of anxiety about the characters’ survival. The case in point comes from the instance in which one of the players suffers a mortal wound, literally bleeding his life out: when I should have worried about his survival, and bonded with the others’ anguish, I just knew that it would be only a matter of time before someone arrived to magically bring him back to life and health – which to me felt wrong, and a sort of cheat.
Overall, The Last Sun turned out to be a not-unpleasant read but either because of the expectations I built through previous reviews, or because of my points of contention, it fell quite short of the mark. While other fellow bloggers are looking forward to the second book in the series, I will wait for more information on The Hanged Man before returning to this somewhat disappointing universe.