The Deep and Shining Dark, Juliet Kemp (Elsewhen Press 978-1911409243, £9.99, 272pp, tp). September 2018.
The Deep and Shining Dark is Juliet Kemp’s first novel, out of small outfit Elsewhen Press. Kemp (whose recent novella from Book Smugglers Publishing you may remember me discussing here before) has written a novel that’s one part high fantasy, one part political fantasy, and one part old-fashioned sword-and-sorcery – without the swords or the lack of realistic diversity to which old-fashioned sword-and-sorcery was often prone.
The city of Marek, though nominally part of a larger nation, is functionally an independent trading republic run by several prominent families. It’s also famous for magic: due to a deal made at its founding with a powerful spirit (known as the cityangel), magic in Marek can be done without needing to resort to using blood, as is necessary elsewhere. A recent plague in Marek resulted in the deaths of all but two of the city’s known sorcerers – and now someone’s screwing with the cityangel.
Jonas came to Marek because he has flashes of precognition. Magic is not accepted among the Salinas – a powerful people whose ships carry nearly all of Marek’s trade – and Jonas had the idea that he could find a sorcerer in Marek who’d help him get rid of it. But Jonas has spent nearly a year avoiding his problem, finding work and a community among Marek’s message-runners, never seeking out a sorcerer, until he encounters Marek’s cityangel – dispossessed of its place at the heart of the city, forced out and made manifest in flesh. Even a foreigner like Jonas can tell this is a crisis in the making. He can’t avoid seeking out a sorcerer any longer.
Reb is one of the last two sorcerers in Marek. Since the plague, she’s grown more and more withdrawn, disinclined to exert herself in her art, and resentful of the quirk of fate that meant she survived when so many others didn’t. Spirits have never been her area of speciality, and when Jonas shows up on her doorstep with the enfleshed cityangel in tow, she feels deeply unqualified to address the problem. She has to take it to her colleague, the disreputable Cato.
Marcia is the daughter of one of Marek’s prominent families, named as heir to her mother’s position on Marek’s ruling council, but with no real authority and little real prospect of it until her mother dies. The elder generation has done away with a law that specified an age for them to retire, meaning that their children now linger in limbo without the prospect of real responsibility before them for years, or possibly decades. A recent venture Marcia spearheaded has failed, and her mother has revealed that Marcia didn’t have as much control over it as she’d thought. Marcia is also Cato’s sister, and the only member of his family still speaking to him. Cato was disowned, since the great houses of Marek are forbidden by law from dealing in magic. When she goes to visit him, she finds Reb, Jonas, and the enfleshed cityangel after breaking in to his rooms – and is soon convinced by their logic that a crisis is in process.
Cato’s been caught up by the schemes of Daril b’Leandra, a charming young man of one of the great families, estranged from his overbearing father, who’s demanded unreasonable deference if Daril ever wants to become heir to his house. Together with his cousin, secret sorcerer Urso, Daril’s set about a plan to replace the cityangel with a being amenable to a different bargain, and thus succeed in overthrowing the old order that’s so determined to keep all the power in its own hands. Daril b’Leandra’s plan hasn’t gone as well as it might, which is why he needs Cato… and why Reb and Marcia – and Jonas, reluctantly drawn into the affairs of this city that’s slowly become his home, loathe as he is to admit it – have a chance to put the cityangel back before the new spirit has an opportunity to do much harm. It’s also why Marcia, at least, has a chance to shape a better, more clearly-thought-out path towards a revolution of her own.
For all that this is written as a relatively compact novel, Kemp has succeeded in packing a significant amount in. At times, it feels as though The Deep and Shining Dark might have been improved had it been slightly longer: Marcia has history with Daril b’Leandra, and Reb is acquainted with them both from when Daril’s youthful schemes (also involving magic) went wrong. This could have been integrated better, had there been more space for it. But Kemp writes a brisk, otherwise well-paced story of politics, consequences, and self-redefinition: it’s not necessarily a coming-of-age story for all of its protagonists, but for most of them, the story involves them coming into themselves, claiming – or reclaiming – their power, ability, and will to act. Kemp writes, for the most part, compelling and relatable characters: you can even relate to Daril’s frustration with the current state of affairs, even if you don’t exactly think he’s very smart.
It feels important to note, too, that Kemp’s Marek is effortlessly diverse, especially in terms of sexual orientation and queerness. Several non-viewpoint characters are nonbinary or trans, while at least one of the viewpoint characters is bisexual. I really enjoyed this novel, and I look forward to seeing what Kemp does next.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, her Patreon, or Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.
This review and more like it in the December 2018 issue of Locus.
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