Look, times are tough out here. There’s a pandemic, and those who haven’t been infected might be unemployed or unable to leave their homes, or both. I’ve heard from a lot of friends that they’ve had difficulty focusing on new stories, watching new TV shows, or reading books. When you do choose a story, you want it to be engrossing but fun, light-hearted but deep enough to pull you in. You want it to have humor and characters you fall in love with, and a happy ending.
For me, The Last Sun delivered in spades.
It’s tough to describe the plot of this book, because a lot relies on the worldbuilding, and the worldbuilding takes a bit to wrap your head around. After revealing themselves to the human world, the citizens of the ruined city of Atlantis have found a new home on the island of Nantucket, moving it near the coast of New York. They’ve populated the island with the remains of their destroyed city, as well as abandoned neighborhoods and buildings from all over the human world. Atlantians live for hundreds of years and have various magical powers; their society is organized into courts, the names of which we know as tarot cards (the Tower, the Lovers, the Hanged Man, etc.).
Our protagonist is Rune St. John, a scion of the Sun court and his father’s sole heir. When Rune was fifteen, his family’s compound in New Atlantis (formerly Nantucket) was attacked by mysterious assailants. They managed to murder Rune’s family and burn down the house and grounds, killing most of the servants. Rune was targeted specifically: kept alive and tortured by the attackers for hours.
As the now thirty-five-year-old Rune explains at the beginning of the book, Atlantian culture doesn’t believe in “coddling its victims”; failure is considered a genetic flaw, and those who fail must be cast out.
From what I’ve told you so far, you might be wondering—is this is the fun, upbeat read for these Difficult Times?
But I promise you, it is. Although he has experienced a lot of trauma in his past, and (a requisite for a fantasy hero) his parents are dead, Rune has rebuilt his life from the ashes, with the help of his patron, Lord Tower, who took him in after the attack. Rune himself doesn’t dwell on the past. He now shares a house with his companion, Brand, a human boy who was magically attached to Rune in infancy to serve as his bodyguard. Between Rune’s powerful magic and Brand’s expert knowledge of tactics and weaponry, the two rent out their services as private detectives, bodyguards, or generally highly skilled people who are willing to do the dirty work for New Atlantis nobility, for a price.
The book’s prose is exquisite, a precise tapestry of humor and action. There are jokes in almost every scene, and I found myself laughing out loud more than once. For example, this bit where Rune’s seventeen year old protégé, Matthias, notices a ring taped to Rune’s thigh—a magical sigil he uses to store and enhance his magic. Sigils are passed down in every court, ensuring scions will always have powerful magic to rely on, but Rune’s sigils are all things he managed to dig out of the ruins of his burned estate. In this case, it was an object belonging to his father’s seneschal:
"It's a cock ring," Brand told Matthias.
"Godsdammit," I said. "It's a sigil. I have a Shatter spell in it. Do you know how few scions can pull off Shatter?"
"His magic cock ring," Brand said.
I could pull out endless quotes from the book, some relying on humor like this, some relying on pop culture references, some purely on the dynamics between the characters. In general, the book is fantastic at weaving a rich, often tragic backstory and then transforming it into a mundane, semi-upbeat, comforting reality.
For example, when Rune and Brand were sixteen, Lord Tower took both of them in, and helped Rune get back on his feet. During this time, Lord Tower’s son made advances on Rune and enjoyed seeing Rune’s discomfort. Brand, in response to this, beat Lord Tower’s son so severely that his nose was broken in a way no magic could ever completely fix. Lord Tower decided to teach Rune a lesson about controlling his servants, and so Brand was whipped within an inch of his life, in a way that meant the scars on his back would never fully heal. In a different book, this could have been a major source of drama and angst. In The Last Sun it means that while Lord Tower is still Rune and Brand’s benefactor, someone who lends them legitimacy and often hires them for various tasks, Lord Tower’s phone number is saved on Brand’s phone with the ringtone of Darth Vader breathing into his mask.
Another strength of the book is its cast of characters. At the beginning of the story, Rune and Brand participate in a sanctioned raid on Lady Lovers, whose management of her court has displeased the high society of New Atlantis enough that they have come together to officially destroy her. Before she dies, Lady Lovers offers to give Rune a coveted sigil, in exchange for a favor—protecting her seventeen-year-old grandson, Matthias, until he’s old enough to fend for himself.
Rune agrees to the bargain, without fully understanding the ramifications of it, which means the next day a teenager is delivered to Rune’s house before he’s even awake. (Matthias’s welcome from Brand is to have his head shoved into a toilet for being rude to the housekeeper.)
Rune, who thinks of himself as a guy just trying to make ends meet, is bewildered at the idea of essentially becoming a surrogate parent to a teenager, who turns out to have traumas of his own.
“What is it we need to talk about, Lord Sun?”
“Matthias, this isn’t an eighties sitcom. I can’t casually accept an orphan into my house for comic relief.”
But taking care of Matthias, teaching him and giving him boundaries, and caring for him in a way that Rune himself was never cared for at that age, gives Rune and Brand, with their otherwise tough exteriors, something soft and vulnerable to focus on.
The other delightful side character in Rune’s life is Addam, a scion of a different court, whom Rune and Brand are tasked with finding in the main plot of the book. Addam has disappeared, but when Rune finds him in captivity, Addam is being held in relative comfort. He helps Rune get out of a dangerous situation, and thus begins their romance. The reason Rune and Addam are such fun counterparts to watch fall for each other is that their romance feels balanced and equal. They are two good people who are only ever good to each other, and that’s as rare in fiction as it is difficult to write in an interesting and satisfying way.
Rune had a boyfriend when he was a teenager, but after the attack on his home, during which Rune was raped, he rebuilt every part of his life except the romantic aspect of it. He hasn’t felt comfortable dating anyone, a fact further complicated by Brand’s overprotectiveness. Brand’s failure to protect Rune, even though he was only fifteen himself, makes him extra wary, now, of anyone who holds Rune’s affections, or tries to infringe on Rune’s feelings or body.
So, when Addam and Rune get closer, including going on dangerous missions together, fixing each other’s injuries, and discovering they may share a soul bond, their relationship by necessity must include Brand. Perhaps the scene that best exemplifies this is one in which all three have to wash the blood and dirt off, after a mission, and so they shower together, which turns into Brand demonstrating for Addam how to best handle Rune’s old shoulder injury. There’s something very wholesome and comforting about a friendship and a romantic relationship not only not competing but completing each other. In the world of The Last Sun, there are no barriers between friends and lovers, companions and soulmates; the only question is who do you care for? Who are you kind towards? Everything else works itself out.
This book is heavy with the sort of tropes I associate with fanfiction stories. The fact that Rune has a telepathic bond with Brand, but also a kind of soul bond with Addam; the fact that at some point Rune and Addam are forced to share a single bed, which jumpstarts their romance; the scars on Brand’s back from a whipping that didn’t break him but will never be forgotten. All of it feels so comforting, so familiar, and is executed so well. Tropes are always double-edged: they remain classics for a reason, but they’re also clichés. The thing that sets The Last Sun apart is how rooted these tropes are in rounded, flawed, vulnerable characters.
Rune begins the book by raiding the compound of a powerful magic user, who can destroy him with a snap of her fingers. He continues by demonstrating how independent and strong he is, how clever. He sneaks into secret compounds, creates strategic plans, and gets himself out of dangerous situations. The action in this book is a heart that never stops beating, never lets you linger on one plot point too long before it carries you into the next adventure.
And yet when Addam and Rune consummate their relationship, Rune panics. He doesn’t like to think about it, but he isn’t ready. He doesn’t know how to deal with either the emotional or the physical aspect of this yet. He flees, and Addam eventually follows him, and they resolve things in a tender, quiet way, full of understanding and kindness.
For me, this is precisely the sort of fiction I want right now. I know some people might like stories where no bad things happen to anyone, even in the past, but for me, I deeply need stories full of good, strong, smart people being kind to each other, while the action and humor entertain me and make me forget about the horrors going on in the world. Even Rune’s trauma is treated with so much care and kindness. It doesn’t control Rune, he isn’t in denial about it. He’s incorporated it into his life as best as he’s able, done his best to deal with it, and only stumbles when things push him out of his comfort zone.
However, there are a few things that the book does less well. The first is the somewhat chaotic and incoherent worldbuilding, both of the magical and real-world elements. The city of Atlantis, full of magic users, now in Nantucket, organized in courts that humans know as tarot cards—none of that quite added up. Do Atlantians believe in a god and a devil? The characters keep mentioning “gods,” so that doesn’t make sense? Why do their courts have very little to do with the actual names of the tarot cards? Nothing was sufficiently explained, though the action, humor, and characters made it difficult for me to be bothered by this aspect of the book. (The only magical element I felt was well-handled was the prophetic power of Addam’s brother, Quinn. This was handled similarly to the “damuses” in Keren Landsman’s Heart of the Circle which, in my opinion, is an even more interesting and coherent way of creating seeing-into-the-future powers.)
The more prominent problem for me was how weird New Atlantis is in terms of the human cultures it has adopted. Atlantians can live for hundreds of years, but most characters in the book feel distinctly American, including the food they eat and the pop culture they reference, even though New Atlantis doesn’t have much contact with the U.S. and Rune and Brand have presumably never even visited New York. Then there are families like Addam’s, a court that supposedly spent decades in Russia, with Addam himself growing up there. And yet, Addam’s mother and aunt—women who were born and grew up in Atlantis—also have strong Russian accents. Stranger yet, two of Addam’s siblings have names that would be odd or impossible to pronounce for Russian speakers (Christian, a name that just sounds like a noun in Russian, and Quinn, a name that relies on sounds that don’t exist in Russian, leading me to wonder if Quinn’s entire family, including Addam, has been mispronouncing his name his entire life).
There are also references to things like kimonos in the streets of Atlantis—overall, the relationship between Atlantians and human cultures is unclear at best. This doesn’t feel like a book that uses exotic “foreign” elements to spice up an otherwise standard American narrative (Addam, despite having an accent, is mostly free of Russian stereotypes, for example), but it also doesn’t feel cohesive or logical. New Atlantis is supposed to be its own culture, foreign to the human world, mixing and matching from all over and adding its own magical core. But mostly it feels like a bunch of Americans living on an island with pockets of immigrants here and there.
The final issue I have with the book, which if I wasn’t reading it in such difficult times would probably bother me more than it did, is how it is focused solely on men and their relationships and problems, and how the women on its fringes are mostly stereotypes and clichés. There’s Brand and Rune’s housekeeper, Queenie, who literally spends most of her time making them sandwiches. There’s Addam’s sister Ella, who has an eating disorder and is hopelessly in love with a man who doesn’t care about her. Yes, there are interesting women, like Addam’s mother and aunt, but they have maybe two lines each in the entire book. It’s particularly jarring because the male characters—Rune, Brand, and Addam and even side characters like Lord Tower, Matthias, and Quinn—are so complicated and multifaceted.
I have no way of knowing how the book would read to me if I were reading it during normal times, not when I’m stuck indoors while there’s a pandemic outside, unable to see my friends and family, and desperately in need of comforting, immersive fiction. But as fate would have it, that was the point when the The Last Sun came into my life, and it was exactly what I was hoping for. A fun, lighthearted, action-y romp, with well-rounded characters and endless fun dynamics to sink into.
At its core, the book is about good men caring for other good men, falling in love with each other, being gentle with each other and themselves, trying to make up for the horrors in the world which are out of their control. If that isn’t a perfect read for a pandemic, I don’t know what is.