Some of the best reading time I get is on planes, mainly because there are so few distractions. I can sleep on planes, but it's not exactly comfortable, and this year we had a flight that wasn't at ass o'clock, so I wasn't particularly inclined to sleep anyway. I read two books on the way to my in-laws' in upstate NY. I'll tell you about the better one first, although I read it second, which is Ilana C. Myer's Last Song Before Night.
Last Song Before Night takes place in Tamryllin, a city where poets (bards? they're both musicians and songwriters) compete for the king's favor, in particular a Silver Branch in imitation of the true Silver Branch that the famed poet Edrien Letrell brought back from the Path years ago, back when there was magic in the realm. There are complications this time around, however. Ritual murders have been taking place in the city, pointing to the resurrection of black magic, and the plague that has stricken a distant city may yet come to Tamryllin if the black magic can't be stopped.
The book has a fairly large cast, so I wasn't surprised to learn that this was intended as the first in a series--how many books I'm not sure offhand, and I believe the second one isn't out yet (this was published in 2014), so it'll be a wait. There are Darien and Marlen, two poets, one light and one dark. Darien is in love with Rianna, the beautiful and naive daughter of a wealthy minority merchant. Marlen, a youngest son, is driven to appease his father, who thinks little of him; his lover is the wild Marilla. Darien and Marlen intend to compete together for the Silver Branch. Darien hopes it will earn him Rianna's hand. But Marlen has plans of his own. And meanwhile, one of the foremost poets of the age, Valanir Ocune, instead selects the woman poet Lin to carry out a quest to seek the Silver Branch, even though women are not supposed to study the poets' arts at all. The secret of the Silver Branch turned out to be one of my favorite parts of the novel.
This is a fun read, and if you like Guy Gavriel Kay this may be for you. But it's not without its flaws. First, the prose. It's not bad prose; it's clear and easy to understand. Sometimes that's all I require of a novel. In a novel that discusses the beauty and transcendence of art, however, I was hoping for prose that was more consciously artistic. Related to that, there's a curious lack of specificity about music and musicianship. I'm not a songwriter (a skill in itself), but I'm a hobbyist composer, and I was sad that we got so little detail about how music is made; things are described so generically I wasn't really sold on the poets as, well, poets. It's one of my complaints about Guy Gavriel Kay as well, actually--Kay has never written convincingly about music. Anne McCaffrey, for all her problems (and for all the fact that, as Marissa Lingen has observed, Menolly is not that great a lyricist), does convince me in her writing that she knows something about music; it's one of the reasons I liked her Harper Hall and Crystal Singer books so much. But I digress.
Second, I am torn about the characters. A lot of them have very interesting arcs. (My favorite was Marilla.) But there's a slight tendency to lean on trope, especially with the villains. (I realize the COMPLETE HYPOCRISY of my making this criticism of anyone else.) I'm also hesitant about the treatment of the women characters. One is seduced by one of the villains and then abandoned, one of them has a seduced-and-abandoned backstory (although by a different man), and one of them was a sex slave. I started wishing that some woman didn't have tragic sex in her storyline in it. I liked the women characters and I wanted something better for them. In all fairness, though, the two major ones get significant agency and character development. Most of the characters got great development, and that was something I enjoyed a lot.
Overall, I'd call this a flawed but entertaining novel, but well worth seeking out if you like epic fantasy reminiscent of Guy Gavriel Kay. I liked it well enough that I'm looking forward to the sequel.