This review covers the first three books in the Nightrunner series. For those who haven’t yet read these books, be warned that there are spoilers ahead.
Every year I seem to stumble upon a series that seemed innocuous enough on the shelf, and I take that series home, unwittingly committing myself to a week in which all my waking thoughts will be consumed by this new world and its characters. Last year, I was lucky enough to happen upon this phenomenon twice, first with Karen Marie Moning’s Fever series, then with Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels Trilogy. I flew through these books at a feverish pace, desperate to find out what would happen to the characters that I’d grown to love yet unwilling to let them go when I’d finally turned the last page. They haunted me for months afterward, and every few months I still flip through to revisit favorite chapters. They are the books that I compare all others against, not in terms of quality per se, but in terms of emotional investment they set the bar.
It took approximately a page and a half for me to realize that the Nightrunner series would be my new series obsession.
Lynn Flewelling achieves that rare feat of balancing complexity of worldbuilding with character development, yet she accomplishes the latter in a most intriguing way. Alec and Seregil have skyrocketed to the top of my list of all-time favorite characters, yet even after three books there is still so much we don’t know about these two, and it’s not for lack of description or purposeful concealment. Well, the latter does contribute, particularly in the first two books, for Seregil portrays one of my favorite character conventions: the spy, the thief, the rogue, perpetually situated on the outskirts while secretly immersed within the intrigue, he gives away little about himself out of necessity and reluctance. Alec, though he suffers from ignorance of his own ancestry, is likewise hesitant to share more of himself early on, though that hesitance is borne largely of confusion and self-denial. We learn more of both characters as the series progresses, yet it is a slow chipping away rather than a large revelation, as each character has good reason to be cautious of giving away too
much of himself. Perhaps it is the scarcity of true insight into either character that makes their connection in the first book, Luck in the Shadows, so compelling, for despite how little either knows the other, their friendship forged on a spur-of-the-moment impulse never feels artificial or unfounded. It’s obvious that Alec and Seregil should be as close as they are, though neither character nor the reader discover the why of it until much later on.
The Nightrunner books are a sort of epic/high fantasy hybrid, yet what struck me most about the worldbuilding was the fact that, particularly early on in the series, the fantasy elements take a backseat to the Nightrunner hijinks. Make no mistake, magic is an integral and essential element of the story, and it provides an ever-present backdrop for the events that unfold, yet I never felt overwhelmed by a landscape that seemed otherworldly as with so many books of this genre. Flewelling has stated that she doesn’t want her characters to have an easy-out just because of the presence of magic, and this philosophy really shines in her worldbuilding. The focus of the first few books is really on Alec and Seregil’s escapades, honing the skills of an occupation that takes much practice and a little luck, yet is no more improbable in a world devoid of magic than in one inhabited by wizards, necromancers, and dragons. True to her word, Flewelling never lets her characters become complacent with the ease of magical ability, and in fact our two leads possess very little in the way of magical skill. Their trials, successes, and failures are a testament to the abilities they have earned rather than the serendipity of the world in which they live. Likewise, even wizards as powerful as Nysander and Thero are far from invincible; their talents are similarly won of hard work and practice, and they don’t possess endless reservoirs of power. They must choose when and how to use what they have, with real consequences for overworking themselves and, more personally, for merely possessing their magical blood.
Though not all the characters in this series are strictly human, Flewelling again chose the road less traveled in creating the different races and cultures. While there definitely exist cultural differences, which become painfully apparent in the third book, Traitor’s Moon, the biological consequences of being born with magical or ‘faie blood bear only one great distinction in that their members are long-lived. Yet, they possess no cliched physical
features or healing powers to set them apart from humans (and land them squarely in the camp of overused fantasy tropes). While they have physiological distinctions as would any member of a distinct race, they look, act, and are as fragile as any other. Our main characters come near to death more times than faithful readers would like, and they have only their own wits and talents to aid them most times (along with a little well-placed magic, but then without it it wouldn’t be a fantasy at all).
As wonderfully intricate and adventurous as the plot arcs are, what really makes the story for me are the characters, and what wonderfully drawn, complex characters they are. The progression from unlikely allies to friends to partners to lovers occurs so naturally, and greater still, it occurs between two equals, no matter their respective ages or experience. They might make the occasional misstep, but they never fail to respect each other, and they both learn to consult with each other before acting unilaterally (though perhaps Alec is a bit more astute in that regard than Seregil). While each character grows, neither outgrows his own humanity. There are no perfect characters here, and growth occurs in the true sense of the word, not continually striving toward something better, but rather learning from mistakes and adapting. Alec’s confidence and assertiveness come into fruition, yet he still relies on Seregil for guidance, rues his own careless errors, and struggles to shed the Northern reserve bred into him even after accepting his ultimate deviance from his cultural norm. Seregil, for all his flourish and bravado, isn’t above making serious miscalculations and dwelling self-consciously on past blunders. I found the gradual shift in his personality entirely consistent and appropriate with the events that he endures, and though he is more reserved and solemn in Traitor’s Moon, I never lost sense of his humor and lust for life.
Flewelling’s secondary characters are equally complex and have the potential for much growth in future books. I’m particularly interested to see how Thero, Beka, and Klia fare in upcoming installments, as I felt that Flewelling has thus far laid the groundwork yet none has quite reached their full potential.
Overall, I can’t recommend the Nightrunner series enough and am eagerly awaiting my receipt of the next few books. I’ve found a lifetime keeper, and I couldn’t be happier.