I loved Amanda Downum’s first published novel, The Drowning City, for its imaginative worldbuilding, its fascinating characters, and its rich, evocative prose. I loved her next novel, The Bone Palace, even more, because it had all of those and wove them into an intricately choreographed plot full of mystery, political intrigue and betrayed love and loyalty. In consequence, I had very high expectations for her third novel, The Kingdoms of Dust, all the more so because it was supposed to take place in a Middle-Eastern, Arabian-Nights-like setting which, as everyone who reads my posts with any regularity will be aware, I have a very soft spot for.
But even though I greatly enjoyed reading the novel, the third in the Necromancer Chronicles (which at one point I thought was supposed to be a trilogy, but apparently there is more to come, at least if the author can find a publisher), it does fall somewhat short of its predecessor – which is understandable, considering just how high Amanda Downum placed the bar for herself, but still, I have to admit, a mite disappointing.
Interestingly enough (because it introduces the rather intriguing possibility that this might be a feature, not a bug, i.e. that this might be an intentional esthetic choice by the author) the problem I had with the third novel in the series are symmetrically reverse to those I had with the first one – by all vividness of its worldbuilding, the depth of its characters and the intensity of its prose, The Drowning City was lacking a bit in forward momentum, and while I’m not usually someone who considers plot essential for a good novel, it is rather important for an adventure story like that one, which seemed to always teeter on the brink of becoming static, falling apart in a series of beautiful vignettes rather than a unified narrative.
Now, while The Bone Palace achieved a perfect balance, The Kingdoms of Dust seems to fall down on the other side, so to speak – the world building appeared sketchy, the characters underdeveloped (and my major disappointment is the short shrift Moth is given here, after her extremely promising introduction in The Bone Palace). Amanda Downum’s writing, though, is as assured and intense as ever, except that this time round it mostly serves to drive forward a fast-moving plot which pits several factions against each other, in a conflict to which necromancer Isyllt Iskaldur seems to be the key…
There is a lot happening in The Kingdoms of Dust, and I am almost tempted to call it action-packed, but that might be exaggerating things slightly. I found it to be quite a page-turner, though, and while I tended to read the previous novels in the series purposefully slow, taking my time to savour the prose and to admire the small, fascinating details on the way, I was rushing through this one, in a hurry to find out what happened next and how it would all end. Which is not quite the reading experience I have come to associate with Amando Downum, but it signals that she is working on her craft and trying to take it into new directions, even in a novel that is part of a series.
So in the end, I’m very curious as to where Amanda Downum will take both her writing and Isyllt next – there have been hints towards a greater picture regarding the conflict between humans and demons scattered through the first two volumes, but they are much more prominent in The Kingdoms of Dust, and I would be not at all surprised if we were to hear more of that in any future novels (the author’s blog on the series makes mention of plans for “at least one more Isyllt book, as well as two spin-offs following other characters”). Also, I can’t help but hope that we have not seen the last of Moth yet and that the full potential of that character will eventually be realised (like, in a spin-off following her further adventures…?). For me, the Necromancer Chronicles remains the most exciting fantasy series by a new author since Sarah Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinths, and I am crossing my fingers that there will be a next installment soon.