REVIEW: SIXTH OF THE DUSK
I've heard a great deal about Brandon Sanderson's writing through various sources - all of it wonderful. While I've certainly been tempted to try something of his for a while now, he is also known best for his much longer pieces of writing and I really couldn't motivate myself to dive into one of his large novels. So as part of the BookTube SFF read alongs, I saw one of his novellas on the shortlist and took the opportunity to sample his widely beloved writing style.
HOW I RATED IT
5/5 This may not be the most original or particularly exceptional pieces of modern literature, but it is by far one of the most enjoyable narratives I have read in a good long while. Intriguing characters, a bizarre setting and a compellingly weird narrative make this little novella one that had a big impact on me as a reader.
There are really just two characters to speak of here - it is a piece of short fiction after all. Our main protagonist is a man named Sixth of the Dusk or Dusk for short. He is a tough as nails Trapper who knows the island of Patji like the back of his hand. Then there is Vathi, a sheltered mainland scholar with a sharp head on her shoulders but not much in the way of actual survival instincts. Both are pretty interesting and each is distinct. There is a bit of a cliche dynamic between them in that they are seemingly opposite and come from very different walks of life. It's the classic boy meets girl and they don't understand each other, but eventually of course find that they had more in common than they initially realized. You might be cringing at this since it is such a common trope in romance stories, but Sanderson actually surprised me a little by not taking that path. There is definitely a relationship that builds up between these heroes, but it isn't necessarily a romantic one. Instead they form a bond of mutual trust and respect, which is what ultimately keeps them alive in this harsh environment. It was a lot of fun to watch them learn from one another and grow as friends. Vathi definitely supplies the majority of the cast's personality since Dusk is the quiet, down-to-business type of guy, but both are reasonably compelling, mostly due to their motives which are slowly explored over time.
While they may not be characters in the sense of being creatures that can speak out loud, Sanderson includes birds known as Aviar. These are birds which are imbued with special abilities and form bonds with their human masters. Dusk is in a rare case because of a bird who is not of an Aviar breed, but has a very special power. It's called Sak and she can show Dusk visions of his own corpse - where the corpse lies is where Dusk could potentially die. The interaction between dusk and this bird was immensely entertaining, especially at the end when the bird's senses are thrown into disarray. It's a very interesting take on a symbiotic magic system and one that I found to be quite memorable. If I had one complaint about this though, it is that I was really unclear what the regular Aviar do. They are described as important companions, but don't appear to have special powers or anything like that. Upon looking it up, I found out that they mask their mind as well as the minds of those around them which is significant because the apex predators on the island hunt based on sensing minds as opposed to scents. I'm sure this was probably mentioned a couple of times and I just missed it, but it is definitely worth noting that compared to Sak, these regular Aviar feel like a non-presence.
If there is one primary issue I had with any of the characters, it is that I really did not get a strong sense of what they look like. That's not to say there were no descriptions at all, just that I personally did not have a strong visual attachment to anyone in the cast, even the birds.
Basically the entirety of the novel takes place on the hostile island known as Patji. The island is portrayed as a sort of character in and of itself. It doesn't necessarily display any real intelligence, but every creature that lives on it and every plant that grows there seems bent on killing unwelcome guests. Trappers act as the human presence on the island, but really seem to only make the place that much more deadly - because they set traps - hence the name. Basically, this is one place where a split second of not paying attention could literally mean the end of someone's life. Despite the devotion that Dusk displays toward it, the island spends every waking moment trying to kill him and anyone else who tries to set foot there. It's also so happens to be a place of great interest for those on the mainland since this island is where the Aviar come from. Particularly industrious folks hope to try and tame the island for commercial use and this is what brings Vathi to the island as a guide since trappers are unwilling to support the mainlanders' agenda. Adding to the conflict is the vague allusion to space travelers who have made contact with people on the mainland, but have not given any actual assistance to them. There's a lot of speculation about who the "Ones Above" are or what they want, but it felt interesting to have this sort of distant element to the setting. There is a lot of talk about the people that live in ships up in the sky, but never a direct interaction between whatever is happening there and the events on Patji. It kind of felt like a reverse episode of Star Gate or Star Trek in this respect.
The plot as a standalone component is nothing overly spectacular. The book starts off as largely a character piece where readers are introduced to Dusk, his birds, and his complicated relationship with the island. Eventually Vathi enters onto the scene and her relationship with Dusk begins to develop. About halfway through, we learn about the Northern Interests Trading Company and the Ones Above. From there the full story begins to develop and we learn about how the people in this world covet the technology that the Ones Above possess but won't share. Without spoiling too much, one of these devices slips into the hands of the Trading Company and Dusk receives horrible premonitions of what will happen if it is used. This sets Dusk and Vathi on a mad race to reach the trading encampment in an effort to stop them from using it. The narrative woven is simple, but tight, and brilliantly focused while still allowing some room for bigger picture ideas to be featured. The ending is conclusive, but also open-ended in a way.
The tone of this story is certainly an edgy one. There is a brutal quality to just how readily someone can die on Patjji, but Sanderson doesn't really delve too much into gore for the most part. There's also and overarching sense of mysticism at every turn. Part of this comes from the involvement of the Aviar, some of it can be credited to the Ones Above, and the rest has to do with the seemingly concerted effort made by the island to kill Vathi and Dusk. The best way I can describe the story is unnerving, but not unsettling. It's just the right amount of twisted to make readers stay on the edge of their seats, but never crosses the line of being too dark or gruesome. All of this is supported by highly serviceable writing and dialogue.
There is no one aspect of this piece that really sticks out as overly unique or exceptional, but the complete package is something that is really quite special. The characters are interesting and their interactions are entertaining. The setting is fierce and unforgiving. Lastly, the plot is wonderfully concentrated. This is just an enjoyable narrative from beginning to end. It doesn't waste time or linger unnecessarily on certain details. Things move neither too fast nor too slow and by the end I felt extremely fulfilled despite this being a much shorter work of fiction. This is apparently part of a larger, shared universe, but I didn't really feel hung up or confused on this at all and believe it to be a nice introduction to Sanderson's writing. Admittedly I'm still a bit intimidated to take on some of his larger works, but I enjoyed this novella enough that I think I will eventually try to dive into one of his novels.
SIXTH OF THE DUSK can be found on amazon in eBook format on Amazon.