Jaine Fenn continues to expand her chosen literary setting and develop her skills as a writer. In Bringer of Light there is a growing confidence to her plotting and her use of viewpoint. On the sentence level, there is less to boast about; her quieter scenes of exposition can be uninvolving, but her use of cliffhangers keeps the pages turning.
Bringer of Light begins with a neat action scene which (re)introduces us to the book's key trio. Jarek is a merchant pilot with his own space ship; Nual a beautiful woman who happens to be a renegade alien with mind reading powers; and Taro is her lover, the junior of this trio. Part of Taro's role is that of "the assistant," so he can ask the questions for the readers. He also has some arc of self-discovery but isn't the character with most growth in the book as this novel continues to expand the cast of Fenn's series.
The Hidden Empire sequence is set in a universe where the female Sidhe, former overlords of humanity, are believed by most people to have been thoroughly destroyed. However, they maintain a hidden presence and significant leverage throughout human space. The series is not tightly coupled so the salient points of its backstory are related quickly, allowing new readers to start here. There is enough detail to spark memories for those who have read along, but the way the past is dispensed with leaves a feeling that there were just a few plot tokens required from the three previous novels. Still, the simple fact that we now have a thousand pages of backstory gives this book additional heft. The series has also established enough characters to be able to push the story forward across multiple viewpoints whilst reusing familiar settings. Here, we return to both the city of Kesh, where the first book, Principles of Angels, was set, and the second book (Consorts of Heaven)'s planet Serenein, whilst continuing the mission defined by the third book, Guardians of Paradise.
That mission is to deliver a shiftspace beacon to Serenein. This device enables the return of the planet to the community of human worlds, adding it to the data network and allowing shiftspace ships to reach the planet. It also seems likely to expose the continuing existence of Sidhe influence to the rest of human space. But first our heroes need to find a beacon. This leads to a revelation and a most unlikely leap to another galaxy. The only source for a new beacon is from remnants of male Sidhe society, who this book reveals still exist, but most of whom have fled human controlled space utterly. The beauty of this revelation is that it is both surprising and so neatly flows from the configuration of Sidhe society and technology as explored in previous books.
The leap to another galaxy, though, feels more like a new set of stage scenery being wheeled into place. Aleph, far away from anything previously imagined, is a set of worldlets where each male Sidhe, generally old and bitter, controls his own human population in a private fiefdom. The little they must hold in common is decided by "Consensus," but even this seems unlikely to be completely binding—particularly given that Nual is a female of their species and thereby the traditional enemy. It seems the main advantage our trio have is that these Sidhe are totally out of practice with non-servile humanity.
Elsewhere, we have the near medieval science fantasy world of Serenein. Readers of Consorts of Heaven will remember that it is a world ruled by religion—a religion that was invented by the Sidhe to control the population. New readers are quickly brought up to speed with the combination of Sidhe high tech and the common people's oil lamps. Kerin, protagonist of Consorts of Heaven, is a figurehead of the religion which controls the planet, but a very different one from her predecessors, who were female Sidhe. Kerin has remarkable intelligence and strength of character, but she is an ordinary woman from the provinces, learning to read and still unfamiliar with the priestly world which now surrounds her. Knowledge alone is not enough to confront the barbarism and obeisance of a whole world. For additional contrast, there is a new character, Ifanna. Her function early in the book is introducing the new reader to the nature of the planet's absolute religion. This feels close to a repeat of Kerin's journey of discovery but Ifanna has been even more abused than Kerin and is more severely caught up in the cycle of victimization. There is also the rather remarkable coincidence that a priest from her birth village comes to her aid in the big city. Still, the story on Serenein is one of coming to terms with the past, recognizing the present and working to make a better future—against the odds, perhaps, using only the tools to hand, of course, but choosing to live with hope rather than fear. The practicalities of torture and compromise aren't as shiny as the theme, but they do contribute to making Kerin's story believable.
The shape of these two plots is not that different from those in the earlier books, but the difference in the telling is notable. Fenn moves through the viewpoints of all her protagonists, often leaving each chapter at a point of crisis. These many mini cliffhangers keep the story moving, whilst the variation of perspective gives the book additional color and allows the author to tell the reader things the characters may not see. It also helps to build sympathy for characters who are struggling against very different kinds of challenge, so that Ifanna's existential fears and imprisonment have a similar heft to the intergalactic adventuring and spaceship destruction which Jarek witnesses.
A sign of the growth in Fenn's plotting is that the climactic events of the conclusion draw together threads from throughout the book; one key event is necessitated by something which happened in chapter three. The story locks together well, rather than being just one damn thing after another. The book's finale also sets up an intriguing premise for Fenn's next book, keeping the reader interested in where the series might lead. Whilst not a great leap in Fenn's work, Bringer of Light is a good point to catch up with the Hidden Empire.
Duncan Lawie grew up in Australia and lives on the Kent coast. His work also appears in The Zone.