Carol Berg’s latest fantasy novel, Dust and Light, is set in the same world as her Mythopoeic Award-winning Lighthouse Duet (Flesh and Spirit and Breath and Bone). It will be followed by the second half of the Sanctuary Duet, Ash and Silver, later this year.
Lucian is an exceptionally rare pureblood. While most of these sorcerers have a single magical specialty, the gods granted Lucian gifts with both art and history. Those with dual bents normally have little ability with either, and the weaker of the two is excised when the sorcerer is a child since practicing both is believed to cause madness. However, Lucian proved to be equally strong with both his abilities, and he always followed the rules of pureblood discipline closely. His grandfather, the king’s historian whom Lucian admired and wanted to emulate, procured permission for Lucian to keep both of his bents until Lucian broke the rules by becoming too close to a woman who was not a pureblood. After this incident, Lucian’s grandfather removed his bent for history and never spoke to Lucian again—nor will he ever since he and most of the family were killed in a fire, leaving Lucian and his teenage sister alone.
Despite avoiding Lucian’s company, his grandfather did arrange a contract for his grandson before his death. Lucian continues to work as a portraitist for the Pureblood Registry until the day he is summoned and informed that his contract will expire much earlier than planned: at midnight. Since he and his sister are financially dependent on this income, Lucian must find a new contract immediately and ends up in the service of Bastien, the city coroner. Bastien is quite pleased with Lucian’s lifelike portraits and is able to quickly identify the first man he draws, but he becomes suspicious when he sees Lucian flicker while doing his work. Having never heard of such an occurrence, Lucian dismisses this as his imagination, but he soon finds his own magic is behaving in unexpected ways—and that’s far from the only challenge he faces with a child’s murder to solve and the Registry’s apparent determination to make his life difficult.
Carol Berg is a phenomenal fantasy author. She excels at creating both richly developed worlds and realistic characters, and Dust and Light displays both of these strengths. Her latest book is wonderful with evocative, lovely prose and a plot full of mysteries—everything from a murder mystery to mysteries related to the past, magic, and the world. Like some of her other books, it includes the theme of discovering the truth after history has been rewritten, and it also contains an unlikely friendship between two individuals from completely different backgrounds (and Berg, as usual, puts her main protagonist through some tough situations!). These are only surface similarities, though—Dust and Light is completely fresh when compared to other books due to Lucian’s perspective and the way the story and magic interact with it.
As is usual for Berg, the biggest strength is her characters, particularly her main protagonist. Lucian is a decent and fair man who will go to great lengths for justice, but he’s far from perfect or simplistic. As Bastien observes shortly after meeting him, “he’s got a broom handle up his ass” (page 31), and he can be prideful and arrogant at times, but these fit with his upbringing and circumstances. Not only has he been raised to follow the strict rules established by the Pureblood Registry, but he’s had twenty-six years for those traditions to become ingrained. The one time he ignored these rules by removing those rigid pureblood barriers between himself and an ordinary in his history class, he was punished severely. His grandfather—the person he most admired and wanted to be like—excised his gift for history, dashing his dreams of using his preferred talent to follow in this same man’s footsteps, and severed their relationship forever. Furthermore, there’s no chance for reconciliation since Lucian’s family died except for his young sister, who has no one other than he for support. After all that, why wouldn’t he be serious and concerned about following the rules? And why wouldn’t he have some pride after being told he was not only gifted by the gods but exceptionally rarely gifted throughout his entire life?
Despite some uptight tendencies, I had no difficulty at all caring about Lucian. This is partially due to the challenges he faces throughout the story and the fact that he does change throughout, but I had sympathy for him from the beginning. He’s certainly had it rough since he’s lost nearly everyone he cared about, his preferred magical ability, and his hopes and dreams. In the first few pages, his contract is abruptly canceled, forcing him into a job even worse than the less-than-ideal job he had—and then his circumstances just keep getting worse! He’s also not a one note character who looks down upon anyone who is not a pureblood like him. His punishment did come about because he fell in love with an opinionated, articulate ordinary, after all, and he at least has some sensitivity and tries to be avoid making ungifted people feel inferior.
While Lucian is the most fleshed out character, all the characters seem like realistic people, but it’s not just the characters who have depth: the world does as well. It’s rich with history and myth, giving the impression that there are many stories that could be told in this setting (and I hope there are more than the two duologies!). In particular, I thought the magic was creative. Part of Lucian’s grandfather’s role as Royal Historian was helping the king win wars, but he did not do this through offensive or defensive feats—he did this by knowledge gained from his bent for history. Similarly, Lucian’s portraits were so lifelike that shrewd Bastien could glean information about their personality, and this art comes to reveal the truth in rather unexpected ways. The way his abilities unfold as part of the book’s mysteries is quite well done.
Dust and Light is exactly the type of fantasy book I particularly enjoy—one that is full of dimension when exploring its world and characters. It’s both an intimate story of one man’s trials and tribulations and a vast story showing the larger world of myths and legends. Since every aspect is detailed and carefully crafted, it can move slowly at times, but I usually found it quite absorbing and I’m looking forward to reading Ash and Silver.
My Rating: 8.5/10
Where I got my reading copy: Review copy from the publisher.