REVIEW: A TOUCH OF LIGHT (THE ASHES OF AVARIN #1)
Madness, magic, and just a touch of light...
A TOUCH OF LIGHT is one of the self-published fantasy novels that's generated a fair bit of buzz around certain bookish circles. The author himself has been very generous with his time on different live shows and I was certainly very curious to pick this one up.
HOW I RATED IT
4/5 A TOUCH OF LIGHT isn't something I gelled with perfectly, but I really appreciated the prose, pacing, high action, worldbuilding, and contemplative nature of this epic fantasy novel.
The story follows three main point-of-view characters: Adrian, Nasha, and Lynn. Adrian is a second-born (and second-loved) Prince of a kingdom, Nasha is a fierce clanswoman trying to find a way to rid herself of a curse, and Lynn is a former holy warrior who has stepped away from her order. Although none of them ever meet, they are tied together in that death is the main theme of each of their stories, though that theme manifests in very different ways for each of them. While I found them all to be intriguing, I didn't really connect with any of them in the way that I would have liked. With the exception of maybe Lynn, whose motivations and beliefs were never quite clear to me, I found these characters to be rather self-centered and nihilistic. While there are certainly people in the world who are like this, I generally prefer fantasy characters to be just a little bit larger than life. I also think that them having such a singular drive, didn't allow me to really feel invested in their personal objectives (why care about them, when they don't seem empathetic to anyone else?). That said, things did get shaken up towards the end of book in some interesting ways and I came to realize that they are in fact capable of caring for someone other than themselves or a romantic partner. I also have to say that I really liked a lot of the side characters, especially those that come in during the second half of the narrative. I felt much more concerned for the safety of these minor players and the fact that Abdallah can be merciless with what happens to them definitely heightened that tension for me.
Like I mentioned, the three POVs don't ever intersect in especially concrete ways. Due to that fact, I sort of felt like I was reading three different books at the same time that just happened to be set in the same world, during the same timeline. While this is kind of an interesting way to go about it, I wouldn't say that I found that type of storytelling to be particularly to my tastes. Without much direct crossover, it just kind of felt like I was getting bounced from one story to another and almost would have preferred to have just experienced one of them through to completion, then perhaps start the next. What's interesting is that even though I felt like each character journey's pacing was interrupted by the others, the chapters themselves actually felt quite fast paced. A lot happens in the span of a chapter, with some even feeling a bit like a short story unto itself. There are also lots of brutal action scenes scattered throughout in such a way that things always stayed exciting, but never got too exhausting. There are a few twists along the way, some that I wasn't really expecting and some that I did, but these turns were quite fun regardless. There is also a general air of mystery surrounding everything. We're kind of just thrown into the world and have to learn things alongside the main protagonists which I loved. What I did find to be a little jarring though is that it felt like we are thrown into the middle of these characters' lives and seemingly expected to immediately connect with them. They have histories and relationships that we have to catch up on. While I liked that there really aren't any info dumps in this book at all, there was a feeling of "missing something" in the way that I had to infer a lot of the characterization and interpersonal dynamics of the cast based purely on context clues and my own assumptions. This evens out as the story goes along though.
Without spoilers, I feel like I need to mention that the ending didn't really satisfy me. There isn't an obnoxious cliffhanger (though something pretty shocking does happen right at the end), but there's no real wrap up or resolution either. The three stories kind of just end. There is definitely a sense of lead-in as far as what will come next for everyone, but I couldn't shake the impression that the book kind of just stops rather than truly ending. Normally, this would be a huge turnoff for me to consider continuing with the sequels, but in this case, I am intrigued enough where I think I will continue, maybe just not right away.
The world building in this book is definitely top notch. Avarin is a sprawling setting that is beautiful and brutal in equal measure. I loved how different each kingdom was from one another in terms of their political structure and belief systems. The militant church of the Seraph watches over the nations within the "Domain" and I found the religion overall to be rather interesting. People basically worship life to the point where dying essentially means that the goddess has deemed the deceased person unworthy. The dead aren't literally forgotten, but they are also not spoken of, making it so that those who pass on are almost erased from the world. The ways this clashed with the culture of The Four Clans as well as a Middle Eastern inspired kingdom were quite interesting. In addition to death, another major element of this world is madness. There is some kind of a sickness that turns people into a violent, almost zombie-like state (minus the brain-eating) and therein lies a lot of the story's physical conflict. The scenes with the mad people got rather disturbing, but I felt like the author did show some restraint when delving into the more grotesque moments which I appreciated. The connection between madness and what little magic exists in this world was a concept that I found particularly intriguing. I felt as though there is so much about both that remained unanswered and I hope this is a major hook for the book's sequel.
I don't usually mention this aspect at all when reviewing books. I also wouldn't really consider myself to be a "prose snob." I just call it out here, because I think it was exceptionally good without being too flowery or "purple." Physical descriptions of the landscape were beautifully done and I found the descriptions of people's facial expression to be some of the best I have ever come across in fiction. Overall, this was just exceptionally smooth and a pleasure to read/listen to. As someone who writes myself, Abdalla's writing is something I very much admire and aspire to.
The narrator does a fantastic job. Every character sounded distinct and the prose was recited effortlessly. I will say though, that I am not sure if audio is really the best way to consume the story. I feel like I would have been able to soak in the prose even better if I read it with my eyeballs and I think having access to a map (assuming the Kindle/Print edition has one) would have been helpful at certain points. That said, if audio is your only option (or just the most convenient one), then this is absolutely worth a listen.
A TOUCH OF LIGHT wasn't a perfect match for my reading tastes, but I was kept interested by nuanced world politics, a steady flow of action, and a sense of continual mystery. Even though I didn't necessarily feel fully invested in the characters or their individual journeys, I left wanting to find out what happens to them next.
(+) Exceptionally smooth prose that isn't terribly flowery
(+) Numerous action scenes and story twists helped the pacing feel fast
(+) A great sense of mystery
(+) Interesting magic that seems to go hand in hand with madness
(+) Some compelling side characters
(+) The way that Death is used as an overarching theme and explored in different ways was fascinating
(+) Some really interesting worldbuilding and politics
(+) A fantastic narrator who does a wide range of character vocals
(-) I didn't find character motivations to be especially compelling and their nihilism was hard for me to connect with
(-) I would have preferred that the three character stories were more connected
(-) Action scenes weren't always easy to follow on audio
(-) The ending didn't really feel satisfying to me (although I do have an interest in reading the next book)