Review: “Promising Light” by Emily Ann Ward

Promising Light is the first in a trilogy (with a set of prequels) of YA novels by Emily Ann Ward.

Synopsis: A young noble, Grace, is romantically involved with a mysterious young man, Dar. A warning comes that Dar is dangerous, she resists, but to her amazement Dar agrees and breaks it off.

But then things get complicated because Dar is a shape-shifter from a magical family that has been cursed by another family to never have another successful pregnancy and a prophetess believes Grace’s pregnancy with one of the Avialies (the cursed family) would break the curse.

What ensues is a struggle between the Avialies who want to get Grace pregnant, Grace who doesn’t want to get pregnant but wants to help the Avialies, Dar who is worried that a pregnancy could lead to Grace’s death or war as such attempts have in the past, and another, possibly deranged Avialie who sees a competing vision of how the curse is broken by the use of lost texts.

Review: The premise intrigued me. Shape-shifters create a lot of different possible scenarios and Ms. Ward develops an interesting set up. There are several magical families each given magic in their blood, apparently, by the god of the story. At one point, there was a level of coexistence among the families and normal people, but a rogue Avialie decided to mess around in the royal court and it was decided the shape-shifters were too dangerous. Throughout the story, a lot of different world mechanics like this are playing against each other because of the competing interests. For example, since the Avialie’s are facing extinction/genocide, some of them have lost their moral compass. The hope that Grace’s pregnancy by any of them could save them all, makes some consider coercion and even rape to accomplish their ends. Grace and the others have to constantly double-check who everyone in their party might be, plus who might be eves-dropping.

Ms. Ward lays this all down in layers effectively without anything that felt like info-dump, or excessive description.

I should probably note there is some sexual content. Nothing explicit happens, but you get close a couple times. Now if done for a good reason, I don’t necessarily object. A certain amount of explicitness can be used for a positive example (Song of Solomon, Proverbs, the Torah) or a negative example (Ezekiel’s depiction of Israel, Proverbs, Tamar and Amminidab, Tamar and Judah, Jael in Judges). In this case, I didn’t get a really clear picture of why it was there except perhaps to remind us that there are real feelings involved. Grace and Dar both want to be together (in all senses), but circumstances are making such a union difficult. My biggest objection to this aspect was, plausibility. I had a hard time thinking that two people who do love each other and are attracted, could repeatedly touch in fairly intimate ways and then keep pulling back.

I think that area would be one for pause for a younger reader or their parent, because I wouldn’t want them counting on being into that kind of situation and also count on being able to pull back. But while it would give me concern, I am not making any broad assumption about the author. Ms. Ward did steer clear of any sexual relations, even when marrieds were concerned, and in general seemed to choose to write “cleanly”. This was also the case in how she handled violence and language.

Moving on. Beyond the setting, the characters were competently developed and interact believably. I thought Ms. Ward portrayed the lead female especially well as a woman with a growing strength. She’s not waiting around to be saved all the time, but she’s not wielding a broad sword, charging into battle either. She also has more than one good motivation beyond her love for Dar vying for attention. She actually has a larger perspective competing with her love, which I think is what creates love story potential.

Everyone wants to talk about falling in love, but that’s not the whole or even best thing, and I think my reaction turned more favorable to the relationship as the story complications built.

On the other side, though, the main male character, Dar, does comes off a little underdeveloped. He didn’t feel like he had enough to do besides relate to Grace. Some of that is understandable. He’s seen the affects of trying to have children under the curse so he has no future in his mind. It makes sense that all of the Avialies are very here/now. How are you going to get a handle on doing anything with your life if you know your work will be inherited by the people who killed your whole bloodline? Apathy and lack of ambition fits. Dar really does have nothing better to do than give in to a little love here and now. And perhaps that’s why the real sexual tension is there, to measure how much each of the characters is giving up?

However, I can’t help feeling like he had no plans and he was very much a rock before Grace pushed him into motion. Which again makes sense, but I think that could have been played out a little more the sense that he was a rock because he saw no future for himself. As it was, he just didn’t seem to be aware of himself.

But just to point out that not all of the guys had this problem. Evan, another in the same family, we never see as a POV character (that I recall), but he was “on a mission” when he shows up. He’s going somewhere. Also, as much as he loves his newly re-united wife, he can see a bigger picture. He’s got a maturity or perhaps perspective that Dar somewhat lacks. Which is good, characters should have different strengths and weaknesses. Also there’s the enamored prince who at first seems to be callous and naïve, who eventually looks to be a real villain, and then turns again to seem to be angry and jealous yes, but perhaps more misunderstood and trying howbeit clumsily to be do good.

The plot and pace were a bit mixed for me, but I’ll issue a disclaimer: I read at work. I don’t have an e-reader so I don’t read e-books at home, I read real books. So I’m not in the most relaxed setting. Also, YA romance isn’t really my thing. I get really annoyed at how young people think about relationships (but that’s more the fault of those who set the pattern for them). Just saying, it’s not my native stomping grounds. 

The plot was interesting and when I had a clear picture of the motivation behind each character, the drama was moving and the tension present. But there were a couple of stretches that felt draggy. Why did this turn of events matter? Why did we have to cover this ground? I was able to put the book down without great urgency to return, which of course only exasperates the problem. Take that into account.

If I try to put my finger on what kept my interest from building, I think repetition comes to mind. Some situations seemed too similar to others (travel, fight, narrowly escape), and the similarity lead to an expectation of how it would go. A couple minor characters got killed off, but those nearest and dearest, would get wounded and then get healed.

Sure, it’s good for the characters to get hurt, but the point is to show their humanity, their risk, and the possibility of death. It’s to show danger and stir sympathy. If it happens too often where someone gets hurt but doesn’t die, it strains credibility and also numbs the reader to the very sympathy and danger we’re supposed to feel.

So I think the bottom line was that the pace felt too flat during the middle. It didn’t have the rise and fall, that marked (this could be it!) danger from (everyday) danger.

However, in the end. Ms. Ward I think pulls the end together in a way that redeems many faults, enough to leave me wanting to read the second book. There’s a twist that makes sense, but also caught me by surprise. I mean, I could see it coming once the plot device was introduced, but the tension hinging on that grows.

Conclusion: On my Smashwords review, I gave the book 3 of 5. Good, but not as engaging/exciting as I would have liked.

But, big but, that was me trying to be honest about what I thought of this work. I think Ms. Ward showed a good grasp of writing skills (bear in mind this book came out in 2011), and since she’s continued to write, I’m sure they’ve developed past this and I look forward to seeing how much in the next installment.

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