Evensong's Heir: A Review
L. S. Baird
A lot of the time, stories are described as “a love letter" to somewhere: a favorite city, a different time, a community. As a fantasy, with a very interesting and unique world all its own, Evensong’s Heir is not necessarily a love letter to anywhere but Valnon, the haunted and hauntingly beautiful last bastion of a fallen city.
It is, however, a love story from the tradition of fanfiction—m/m fanfiction, specifically—because that is a world the author has years of experience writing in, and never really left. (She has an online presence that includes more than one Tumblr blog, including one devoted to this series, and decades’ worth of fanfiction floating around the Internet.)
That connection back to m/m fanfiction is an easy way for me to characterize what drew me to this book, but it’s more than that. The way that specters and religion, music and magic and faith, intersect in this story is fascinating and beautiful. The characters that inhabit this story, however, are often irreverent, warm, and snarky, even on the grand political and spiritual stage they are made to inhabit. The balance between these two elements gives a unique flavor to the story that makes it feel fresh, even when reading it over and over again.
In Valnon, the best young male singers are made Songbirds every dozen years or so, castrated to preserve their incredible voices and given the titles of Thrush, Lark…and, very rarely indeed, Dove. They spend their adolescence singing in memory of the Saints who saved their people a thousand years ago. The Songbirds and the temple where they live are revered, second in prestige only to the Queen.
However, their position places them at the center of intrigue and treachery, as threats converge on Valnon from every side. When the third Dove of Valnon, Willim, is in mortal danger, he’s placed in the responsible—but disreputable—hands of Nicholas Grayson. Nicholas is a victim of a decade-old love affair that ended in scandal, now living in obscurity as a disgraced sellsword.
Evensong’s Heir is satisfying for most (if not all) the reasons that fanfiction is, while also standing on its own as a well-written story. The narration makes up for its occasional blockiness by being very lyrical and easy to read, once you get past the length of paragraphs. There’s a rhythm to this book that bespeaks love in every line.
Throughout, the dialogue really shines, including some some profoundly satisfying and hilarious banter. (I have never felt as called out by a piece of fiction as I was by Ellis saying to Willim: “Damned if I ever thought I’d see the day your eye was turned by anything that wasn’t in minor key.” On my first read-through, Willim’s response to this actually made me laugh out loud.)
On the minus side, however, some of the stuff that’s weird about this story hearkens back to common fanfiction tropes as well. For me personally, it never went too far over the line into offensive territory, which is honestly an accomplishment. I wouldn’t expect that to hold for everyone, though, which is why I gave it a lower rating than I might have otherwise. I’ll outline a few of the possible sticking points below.
First of all, while all the characters are adults, most of the main romantic relationships in the story feature pretty drastic age gaps—a decade, at the absolute minimum; twelve to fourteen years is probably closer. I would imagine that this is (quite reasonably) a deal-breaker for some, but it wasn’t written in a way that bothered me.
The few female characters there are get complex and interesting—including non-romantic—relationships with other (male) members of the cast. They’re just as well-developed as the men, and just as interesting and entertaining. But the story doesn’t use them to their full advantage, and above all, they just don’t get very much time to shine. I’m not sure we even see two women in the same room at any point, though I could be forgetting a scene somewhere.
Reim, the Queen of Valnon, gets the short end of the stick in particular. The narrative pushes the fact that although she is blind from birth, she is fully prepared to assert her own agency. Unfortunately, the story itself has a way of taking that agency from her—including scenes in which she is manipulated, manhandled, nonconsensually kissed, objectified, and framed as lesser because of her gender. On this reread, I found this to be my biggest issue with the story, especially because so much of it seems unnecessary, if not gratuitous.
However, in other common fanfiction pitfall areas, the story does better than might be expected. The racial traits as described in the book read, to me, as only a bit hit-or-miss. There are some peripheral characters that played with some racial tropes that were pretty uncomfortable—an enslaved survivor of genocide, for example—but generally, the more focus a character or ethnicity got, the further they moved away from caricature.
Slavery is explored intensely in a specific section of the book, but I can’t decide how I feel about it or whether I should frame its inclusion negatively or positively. It gets a tentative neutral from me, in that while its inclusion could be considered bad on principle, it seems like it was handled in a reasonable way given the context of the story.
For the primary setting of the story, at least, the history of Valnon and its environs leads to a complex relationship with colonialism that I hope will be further explored in the future.
On the queer representation side of things, I found this book to be pretty unambiguously enjoyable. Outside of fanfiction, I have yet to encounter many stories where desire and attraction between men does not get so much as a double-take. In Valnon, though, same-sex romance does not seem to be frowned upon. Tradition bars Songbirds from sex until they finish their terms of service (at twenty), but very few of the characters seem to approve of that tradition, setting it up as a bit of a straw man ready for the dismantling.
For the record, there is no explicit sex in this book, and I found it a bit disappointing to find that scenes fade to black pretty quickly at moments when such elements came to the forefront. The romantic tension, however, carries very harmoniously (pun intended) through the entire story, right to the end, which leaves both characters and readers wanting more.
Fortunately, Evensong’s Heir is only the first book in the Songbirds of Valnon series. The second volume isn't out yet, but the first stands quite well on its own. For readers who are not bothered by the issues I raised above, I highly recommend it.