The Kingdoms of Dust

The Kingdoms of Dust - Amanda DowningDiamonds are a girl’s best friend, especially when that girl happens to be a sorceress. It’s an idea that I played with myself in my D&D campaign many years ago. Gemstones can be used to power magic. The more perfect the stone, the more powerful the work it can perform. Diamonds, of course, are at the top of the tree. In The Drowning City, Isyllt Iskaldur encountered a plot to smuggle large quantities of diamonds. Now, at last, she’s about to find out what they were for.

Another year, another Amanda Downing novel, and despite my reservations about The Bone Palace I leapt at the opportunity to buy it and read it. This time, I am happy to say, I was not disappointed. The new book, The Kingdoms of Dust, is fairly light on gender issues, though several of the characters are still enthusiastically queer. It is also relatively slow and light on action, compared to the previous two volumes. That does not make it any less interesting.

Following the events of The Bone Palace, and the death of her master and lover, Kiril, Isyllt has fled Erisín in search of a new life. With her is the intersex child, Dahlia, who is now calling herself Moth because in the world of the books using a flower’s name marks you out as a prostitute. Isyllt quickly adds Adam to the team. The handsome mercenary with whom she worked in The Drowning City has found himself in jail, but that’s hardly a problem for a skilled necromancer. Now all they need is work, and it swiftly arrives in the form of a summons from Asheris al Seth, the Assari wizard. Assar, a quick look at the map tells us, is an Egypt-analogue, hence the title of the new novel. I guess Orbit has a style for the titles in the series. I, however, prefer the German title of the book, Geisterwinde: Ghost winds.

Assar, of course, sits on the edge of the great sand sea, Al-Reshara. The sand and the heat are constant problems, but familiar ones. Every few years, however, something else comes out of the desert. In the dead of night, a wind blows that whispers of terror and destruction. Nothing can withstand its touch. Naturally the Empress Samar would like to rid her country of this scourge. Being one of the few people who knows that a jinni inhabits the body of her favorite advisor, she turns to him for help. Asheris, who recognizes the touch of death when he smells it, sends for an expert.

We readers, from our privileged multi-character viewpoint, are far wiser than Asheris. We know that the ghost wind is something much worse than death. Centuries ago, magicians in the gleaming city of Irim heard something call to them from the depths of space. They answered, and the travelers, hitching a ride on a comet, paid them a visit. The magicians gave the visitors the name, Al-Jodâ’im, The Undoing. Eventually they caged them, but not before Irim had been reduced to dust, and thousands of lives lost.

In Isyllt’s time the descendents of those magicians form a secret society known as Quietus, the Quiet Men. Mostly they live deep in the desert, in the city of Qias where Al-Jodâ’im lie bound. They are old now, and few. The seals on the prison are weakening. Which is why they need diamonds. And why their leader, Nerium Kerah, is seeking for new blood to join the society. The name at the top of her list is Isyllt Iskaldur. Nothing must be allowed to stop her from securing this new recruit. After all, if Al-Jodâ’im were to get loose, they would probably destroy all other forms of life.

The Kingdoms of Dust is a story about prisons. Almost every character in the book is imprisoned in some way. Adam starts the book in one, Al-Jodâ’im have been in one for centuries, Asheris is trapped in a mortal body, Nerium by her oaths of service to Quietus. As for Isyllt, she’s mainly a prisoner of her grief. Sooner or later, choices need to be made. And as Isyllt says to Moth near the end of the book, there’s no such thing as good choices.

It is strange, sometimes, how one book will haunt another. We should never forget that any sophisticated fantasy is indistinguishable from science fiction with extremely advanced technology. Downum tells us that Al-Jodâ’im means The Undoing. I’m not sufficiently expert in Arabic to confirm that. But for me the name was quite different. I read them as The Fast Folk. Qais I called Jupiter, and Nerium I saw as Ellen May Ngewthu, the fierce and uncompromising commander of The Cassini Division. The choices seem the same: endless imprisonment, genocide, or suicide. Which bad choice will Isyllt make? I guess you’ll have to read the book to find out.

I do have a few reservations about the book. From the new reader’s point of view, there’s a lot taken for granted. Having read the previous two books, I know who Isyllt, Adam, Moth and Asheris are. Even so the character of Nerium’s daughter, whom Adam knew years ago, confused me. Was I supposed to remember her from The Drowning City? I wasn’t sure. In the end I don’t think it mattered, but you get these problems as series get longer.

Also I would have like to see more of Ahmar, Nerium’s rival for leadership of Quietus. I felt that I didn’t really understand her strategy or motives. Possibly I read the book too quickly, but she gets very little screen time.

Overall, I enjoyed the book, but I think that new readers should probably start from the beginning of the series.

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