Picking up an epic fantasy can be daunting, because they tend to be, well, epic. Lots of people, places and things. A lot of new names to try to pronounce and magic systems to learn. How an epic fantasy chooses to introduce all of these new things can make the difference between something being dazzling and dizzy. (Big, sweeping sci-fi sagas aren’t immune from this, either.)
In the case of Thiago Abdalla’s A Touch of Light, I found myself basically dazzled by the adventure through the land of Avarin, although I do have questions.
A Touch of Light spins between the points of view from Adrian, prince of Othonea; Lynn, a Sentinel of the Holy Church of the Seraph who hasn’t been using her elite and holy magic for all the right reasons; and Nasha, a hunter for the Ronar people who continuously has to prove that she has risen above her humble beginnings—and keep the curse boiling in her blood in check. And, in fact, all of our characters have to overcome the perception of others to rise to their potential. How well they do it really depends on the character.
Prince Adrian is living in the shadow of his older brother, Jovu, which is really too bad because Jovu is dead. Still, Adrian is trying is hardest to live up to the family name, though he’s pretty sure his father will be disappointed with everything he does no matter what it is. There are much bigger problems than the missing airship or even a dead prince, too: A sickness is sweeping through the kingdom, turning its victims into violent and mindless killers. Adrian, still mourning the loss of his betrothed, sets off to try to find a solution—diplomatic or otherwise. When he is named Lord of the Legion and given the holy responsibility to bring peace again to Avarin, he finds his position as second and less-beloved son makes for an uphill battle, as does his lack of faith. But his faith grows when he discovers he is immune to the madness, and he decides to trust in that new confidence as he makes new allies that bring as much danger as they do hope.
Meanwhile, Lynn’s semi-self-imposed exile is abruptly brought to an end, much to her chagrin, meaning she has to re-enter the world she had been trying to hide from. She finds she has some friends still, but mostly enemies, particularly in the ranks of the Sentinels. By going rogue, Lynn has essentially sentenced herself to death, but desperate times call for desperate measures, so Lynn is not only spared but asked to help lead the Sentinel charge against the ranks of the infected and those taking advantage of the chaos they bring. Earning back the respect of the Sentinels and fighting the infected would both be herculean tasks, and it’s only Lynn’s commitment to making things right that keeps her from running again.
Elsewhere in Avarin, Nesha killed a leader of the clan out of what she felt was a necessity. The others she was with disagreed, and in the ensuing fight, she killed them, too. One, though, rose from the grave and accused her of murder, and it took every alliance she had—and a few she didn’t know she had—to not be executed. She’s only just keeping her curse under her control, and the destruction it promises seems to lurk closer each day. Almost worse than death is the alternative her allies manage to wrangle for her: she takes the place of the leader she killed, which duties involve whipping a bunch of teenagers into fighting shape for a battle royale. Her new alliances come with a multitude of favors, though, all seemingly designed to place her just over the line on one side or the other of the schism she can see forming. She is a pawn with a dangerous secret, and she doesn’t like it, but she can’t do much besides try to keep her head above water.
There are some seriously cool concepts running through A Touch of Light. Lynn’s magic taps into her anger, and she gains additional power through her connection to the griffin she rides, but she risks “hollowing out” if she expends too much power without having enough runestones on hand to keep her from this consuming exhaustion. Magic is best when it doesn’t actually come out of thin air, when there is a tangible cost to doing the seemingly impossible. The cost here is well defined, giving credible stakes to Lynn’s use of magic. That Nesha’s curse, which I deeply suspect to also be some great magic, isn’t well defined didn’t bother me; I assume that will be elaborated on in a future book. Regardless, whatever power she holds also seems to tax her severely, demonstrating some cost for even undefined magic.
As with most epic stories, A Touch of Light shows us how great violence or change affects different groups of people. Adrian and Lynn’s stories, though starting in very disparate places, converge close enough as both try to fight the battle in their own ways. Their goals, or the goals that were being thrust upon them, as the case may be, were close enough that I felt like both were giving me insight into the same great threat. I didn’t get that sense with Nesha’s story. Although I was interested in her story, I wasn’t quite sure where it fit into the broader picture. (For a while, I thought both she and Adrian were antagonized by the same character, but it turned out to be weirdly similar names: Addo vexing Adrian and Adda causing problems for Nesha. No relation, apparently.)
That might be a question answered plainly in a future book, but it seemed odd to have her seemingly so disconnected from the main narrative. Which is too bad because I was interested in her story and am very curious how it fits into the bigger picture. War is coming to the Southern Clans that make up Nesha’s home but is limited to fighting between the clans. War is raging up north but that has little bearing on her piece of the world. She’s a complex character made up of a lot of spit and vinegar, and her circumstances are described clearly enough that you can’t blame her for it.
Another thing about epic stories that involve multiple points of view is that, as a reader, you tend to pick favorites, and least favorites. Lynn was my personal fav, though it was a slow burn for me. Her conviction to do what was right by herself, even though it wasn’t the easiest path to take, was consistent and nuanced, and I didn’t feel she suffered from an excess of plot armor. Nesha, too, was right up there. Adrian…well, Adrian got himself into plenty of pickles by the end and I wasn’t sad about it. There’s just something nice about seeing the blonde-haired, broad-chested prince-hero screw up pretty royally (pun intended), even if his intentions are good. Okay, pretty good. Okay, sort of good.
A Touch of Light has a lot of elements of a solid fantasy, though there were a few plot holes that could have either been stitched up better or had better explanation for why they weren’t plot holes. Abdalla writes about growing up immersed in and enthralled by classic fantasy stories and role- and card-playing games, and you can see many of those influences here. A Touch of Light is a great love letter to the genre, and although I’m not sure it will become a pillar like its influences, it’s a fun enough romp through a new epic fantasy world.