Turning Darkness into Light by Marie Brennan
Titan, pb, £7.99
Review by Laura Castells Navarro
Turning Darkness into Light sets off with the news that a cache of ancient clay tablets has been discovered by the wealthy collector Lord Gleinleigh and contains an untold Draconean epic. Lord Gleinleigh recruits Audrey Camherst, a renowned philologist and granddaughter of the famous Lady Trent (from Memoirs of Lady Trent), to translate the epic with the condition that she will not share her results until the entire epic is translated and published. Despite the imposed secrecy, Lord Gleinleigh accepts Audrey to recruit Kudshayn, an acclaimed Draconean scholar, and will offer Cora Fitzarthur, his own niece, as an assistant. The three will embark in the translation of the epic, an academic endeavour with foreseeable political consequences as it is done with the backdrop of a great meeting that will decide on the relationship between humans and the Draconean people.
The book is a combination of Audrey’s, Cora’s and Kudshayn’s diaries as well as letters, newspaper articles and the annotated translations of the tablets they are working on. This is a linear and fairly slow-paced story that only quickens up at the last quarter, with very little world building (maybe because it is expected that readers might have read the previous series), and whose couple of plot twist are very easy to predict. Also, as every letter/diary excerpt neatly puts the following piece in the big jigsaw puzzle, the book does not really hold the dramatic tension I would have expected from a book that explores the use and misuse of scientific research for political advantage. Furthermore, the absence of a map is a substantial problem as specific locations are very often mentioned. As a main character, Audrey Camherst is, surprisingly, rather two-dimensional and does not really evolve throughout the book so, to me, she was the least interesting character of all. I was much more curious about Kudshayn, his people, Cora’s hinted back-story and the epic itself than in Audrey’s past love story with a disreputable academic and her attempts to fit her family’s massive shoes. So, I finished the book feeling it had been a bit of a missed opportunity.
As an academic myself, I must say I was really interested in the premise of the book and in seeing how the author explained our methodologies, the need for collaborative work and the ethical discussions and implications of archaeological research. In this sense, I would thank the author for telling this story, because it not only puts out there the real but not-so-glamorous part of our discipline but also exposes a very real problem with long-lasting consequences in archaeology, the misuse and misrepresentation of results to serve a specific narrative. As she very clearly exposes, the past stories we choose to represent us are the way we choose to tell about ourselves and how we want to be seen by everyone else. This is what this book is really about, and for this reflection and the discussion it may prompt, I would say this is a book it is worth reading.