Book Review: The Kingdoms of Dust

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I’ve really enjoyed Amanda Downum‘s Necromancer Chronicles series and each time a new book comes out, I snap it up as soon as I can. The Necromancer Chronicles feature the adventures of Isyllt Iskaldur (love the name!), necromancer and spy as she attempts to stir up rebellion, protect royalty, hunt down assassins and subdue demons.

I love how each book is located in a different part of Isyllt’s world – the first, The Drowning City, in Symir, a south-east Asian-esque country which I think draws on from Downum’s time in Indonesia (she also mentions being inspired by the events of Hurricane Katrina). The second, The Bone Palace, I notice from other reviews, is a big favourite with readers – it’s set in Erisin, a quintessential European-style city, dark and cold and rainy and haunted by spirits and vampires lurking in the sewers. (Don’t get put off though – the vampires only play a minor role and they’re a far cry from Twilight-style vamps). And finally the third, The Kingdoms of Dust, is set in a Sahara-like desert ruled by the powerful Assar empire.

I don’t have a particular favourite setting, to be honest – all of Downum’s locations are so fantastic. Her world-building is complex and absolute, rich and filled with so many different cultures, traditions and myths. You can definitely tell she’s done her research. And the food – the food is delicious! I adore reading about the meals her characters eat  – ironic, because Isyllt hardly has the appetite to eat anything set down before her. (Too busy working out intrigues and spells). I also like the fact that Downum’s protagonist is this elegant, no-nonsense spy with a head for unraveling mysteries and working magic – and has the ability to transition from grappling with an enemy in the stinking sewers to wearing a gorgeous gown in a royal ballroom with no problem at all. She also treats her love affairs with a welcome maturity not often seen in many romance or fantasy stories, and a certain amount of pragmatism and tenderness. (Sure, the one man she truly loves is the wrong man and a symbol of her daddy issues, but, hey, you can’t win ’em all). But in spite of this, she’s no greenhorn, this Isyllt. And that’s why we like her.

In Kingdoms of Dust, Isyllt has just lost her job as a Crown spy in Erisin and has gone into voluntary exile in Assar. Although she’s not a paid spy anymore, old habits die hard, especially when she’s sought out by the Empress of Assar, an outcast but powerful jinn, a brutal warlord and a mysterious sect which is guarding a dangerous secret deep in the heart of the desert. On top of that, she has to rescue an old friend from prison, look after a new young apprentice and try in some way to heal the grief and pain she’s suffering from since the events of The Bone Palace in Erisin. Figuring out what her next occupation should be is the least of her worries.

Like I said before, Downum’s world-building is a treat – and I also enjoy her style of writing – it’s as elegant and refined as her protagonist. Downum’s attention to detail isn’t just limited to her locations – her characters are also incredibly well-developed. They are, for the most part, strong, brave and sharp of mind – the sort of people you’d like to be friends with – but they all have their weaknesses too. Both female and male characters really come to life – there’s no paper-thin, black-and-white, tired stereotypes here and most, if not all, have their own back stories which come to light in subtle ways throughout the books. And if I haven’t done enough gushing about Isyllt, I feel that in Kingdoms of Dust, this necromancer is really coming into her own – the real makings of a hero or legend, so to speak. She’s developing new strengths (and also new weaknesses), not to mention her growing reputation as a storm crow who seemingly attracts trouble everywhere she goes. Kingdoms fall and rise in her wake, power changes hand, floods and volcanoes occur everywhere Isyllt goes – which makes for some great keep-you-on-the-edge-of-your-seat reading.

One other thing I like about Downum’s Necromancer Chronicles. She is able to combine all the best elements of a spy thriller, magical fantasy and mystery stories. In The Bone Palace, you could really feel Isyllt’s fatigue, coupled with the physicality of her post-fights soreness and the foggy chill of Erisin. You can almost imagine the weariness of spies and investigators racing against time to solve a mystery. And here in Kingdom of Dust, you can feel the gritty, sweaty heat of the desert, the lushness of its oases, and the loneliness – a major theme in this third book – of many of Downum’s characters – Isyllt, Adam, Asheries and Melantha, each of them seeking a new way of life, a place where they can be accepted, or at least, avoid ostracisation. Isolation and trust are big issues when you’re a spy or a mercenary – and Isyllt and her compatriots pay the price for doing what they do best.

Downum is definitely a rising star in the world of fantasy – and I, for one, am looking forward to the next Necromancer book to hit the shelves.

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