Liz Bourke Reviews The Memory of Souls by Jenn Lyons

The Memory of Souls, Jenn Lyons (Tor 978-1-250-17557-1, $27.99, 640pp, hc) August 2020.

Like The Obsidian Tower, Jenn Lyons’s The Memory of Souls (the third volume in her Chorus of Dragons quartet) focuses as much on individual characters and relationships as it does on the great events in which they are caught up. At the heart of this series is a strong suspicion towards power (either embodied in people or impersonal, institutional and systemic) and its motives, which come across as anger married to empathy, and a deep sympathy with subverting or outright tearing down colonial and imperial systems. It uses many of the topoi of traditional epic fantasy, such as:

i. millennia-long struggles against an all-devouring foe,
ii. powerful artefacts,
iii. long-lived (immortal) ethnic groups,
iv. prophecies,
v. godlike beings taking an interest in indi­viduals,
vi. demons, likewise,
vii. prophesied heroes,
viii. international travel.

Although these topoi are familiar, the uses to which Lyons puts them, and the manner in which she reinterprets them, completely undermines the conservatism of the epic fantasy tradi­tion. Most epic fantasy valorises a status quo ante – the overthrow of a Dark Power that has contributed to a decline from a previous golden age; the return of a king (or other monarch) and the restoration or re-legitimation of a system of rule based on inheritance and descent; the idea that the system of power would work fine if only Certain Bad Individuals could be replaced and their abuses ended, rather than acknowledging that a system that allows such abuses to happen with relative impunity is in itself a terrible sys­tem (this statement has a dreadfully immediate relevance) – and in consequence, is rarely un­predictable and never, when it comes to systems of power, capable of revolutionary confrontation or analysis. (Revolution is a practice that most epic fantasy views with deep suspicion at best.)

It has been a deeply pleasing surprise to me to discover Lyons’ Chorus of Dragons becom­ing more explicitly opposed to its status quo ante – more queer, more revolutionary, and more engaged with confronting entrenched and unaccountable power – with every volume. It’s clever and playful and full of empathy.

The Memory of Souls, like its predeces­sors The Ruin of Kings and The Name of All Things, plays with narrative voice and point of view in a delightful and entertaining fashion. While the novel has multiple points of view, part of its conceit is that these have been compiled together into a report after the event – with clar­ificatory and occasionally humorous footnotes by the compiler, which highlights the idea that all of the novel’s characters (and narrators) are not necessarily reliable witnesses of their own motivations and actions, much less of the context in which those actions take place. The footnotes allow the reader to grasp that lacunae in the characters’ understanding of their world exist: this style of narrative also serves to problematise the existence of any “objective” truth within the world of the story. Characters have different understandings and perceptions of what has hap­pened, as well as different levels of knowledge, and this, combined with their personal inclina­tions and loyalties, determines their choices. (This style of narrative also highlights how bad e-readers and e-reader software are at handling footnotes: for something that should be a solved problem, it’s really poorly implemented.)

There are more viewpoint characters in The Memory of Souls than in its predecessors. Kihrin, Janel, Teraeth, and Thurvishar – the four prophesied (or perhaps “prophesied”) “Hellwarriors” – and a number of others, in­cluding Senera. In addition to the problems that face Kihrin, Janel, and friends in confronting the extreme difficulties posed by Vol Karoth (a power capable of destroying the world) and the various different factions’ visions for solving that problem (ambitious, manipulative wizard-dragon Relos Var vs. the Eight Immortals, who definitely aren’t freaked out and who are cer­tainly capable of thinking outside the box to try to solve the problem – oh wait), Kihrin, Janel, and Teraeth have to wrestle with their feelings for each other, and what it means for all three of them to be in love – and what it means for them to be who they are.

Lyons is very deft when it comes to structure and pacing, with chapter-ending cliffhangers switching to different narrative strands in a fashion reminiscent of a thriller. For a novel of more than 600 pages, it’s a fast, pacey read – so much so that it can feel exhausting. (That might be because I was aware of the trick, and thus aware that my attention was being manipulated in order to keep me engaged: I get worn out by the same thing in other novels and in televi­sion, too.)

Among the innovative ways Lyons delves into epic fantasy tropes is her treatment of Vol Karoth, the world-destroying power translat­able as “King of Demons.” In The Memory of Souls, we learn how Vol Karoth came to be. It turns out he’s something of a victim, transformed from ordinary man into universe-destroying hunger while (mostly) trying to do what seemed like the right thing, but trusting the wrong person. Said wrong person was sufficient­ly over-ambitious as to perform a major magical operation without adequate testing or health and safety precautions, rather than miss his chance to take what he thought of as his rightful place, which led to Seriously Poor Consequences for, well, everyone. It turns a clash between Right and Wrong into a much more complicated, more human, story of tragedy and ambition, struggle and survival, empathy and ethics – albeit on a scale vast in both time and space.

Despite the scale of this series, Lyons never loses sight of the human level, and the nature of – and human need for – interpersonal con­nections. Her work here is surprisingly kind, and leavened with a full helping of humour and grace under grim circumstances – including during a battlefield showdown between gods and dragons. I’m getting fonder and more enthusiastic about this series with every volume, and I have to say I loved The Memory of Souls, and found it ef­fective both in terms of craft and structure and in terms of emotional impact.

I can’t wait to see the climax of this series: I have full faith that Lyons will pull off a work worthy of the build-up.

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 August 2020 issue of Locus.

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