The Bright and the Dark by Michelle M. Welch

“…I had plans for a volume entitled Chasing Fire, to take place several decades after the events of Confidence Game. It was not intended as a sequel so much as another story sharing the same world; I found a place for Aron Jannes in it, but he was the only crossover character. I pitched this book to my publisher, but what they wanted was something more closely tied to Confidence Game, closer in time and featuring more of the same characters. So I placed The Bright and the Dark between the two, to act as a bridge…”
-Michelle M. Welch

I’m not entirely certain where to start. The Bright and the Dark is described as a “semi-standalone sequel”, which sounds like gibberish to me. It’s the second novel set in The Five Kingdoms sequence, and it has enough loose ends dangling around that one must read the third to finish everything off.

Where do I start? It’s been ten years since the events in Confidence Game. Elzith is in Sor’rai, recovering, transforming, losing humanity, gaining vision. Tod is in Biora, and he’s still a bookbinder. Julian is a Bioran, and he doesn’t want to join The Men in their big, strong, manly battles over the nature of light (a seriously surreal issue). Aron Jannes, secretive and alone, still hates his father.

Dalbion’s reign is shaky, and a plague is coming.

As a follow-up to Confidence Game, The Bright and the Dark has one shining virtue: Elzith’s narrative is pared down to a minimum, and most of the novel follows a third-person perspective. Elzith remains as the emotional – or do I mean visual – centre of the series, but in this book she takes more action, and is seen from more than one character’s perspective. It’s a big improvement from her last showing, though she’ll never be quite as attractive a subject as some of the other characters. A pity, given her importance.

As a biased consumer, I would have liked to have seen more of Tod in this novel, but Welch doesn’t have my sentimentality, and has ruthlessly used him only as much as he is needed. I wouldn’t call him “a boring character with an interesting voice” any longer. Maybe it’s the Mentor role he gently adopts – you gotta love the Mentors! – but I liked his moments in the text, whether seen from his point of view or someone else’s.

If Elzith seems to be the connecting line for the series, Julian and Aron were the emotional centres for this novel. I’m, admittedly, quite fond of the Polar-Opposites-Who-Communicate-Very-Well-With-Each-Other approach, but even so I think the Julian-Aron dynamic was nicely done. Welch has the wonderful gift of not overstating, allowing much of her action and emotional development to be inferred, rather than thrusting it down our throats. Better still, they work well even when they’re not together – they stand alone if they need to.

I had to read this novel before I understood how much of Confidence Game was a long info-dump process that served merely to lay out the rules of the Five Kingdoms so that the new story/stories could take place. World-building, subtle, detailed, not in-your-face. World-building is the current bug-bear of fantasy criticism, it seems – this notwithstanding that some of the best authors out there right now do their fair share (and sometimes more) of detailed world building. Goldilocks would like Welch’s approach, I think. Welch remembers that worlds have stories, too.

Again, an underrated novel. I suspect it was read less because of the flaws – such as they were – in Confidence Game, which is a great pity. This is a better novel, and its sequel promises to be just as good a read – for me, anyway.

The problem for many people, I think, will be Welch’s prose. I personally like her style – reading Welch is like placing your hand on cool glass and feeling tremors. It’s quiet, it’s subdued, it’s clear. It has the lucidity of stillness. It means that her plot flows naturally without having to stop and explain every plot event. I think that some people would read the novels and find them slow, and monotonous, judging from the reviews on amazon. It depends. But it has my vote, and I shall read Chasing Fire as soon as I can.

Click here for an excerpt.

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