Author Brigid Kemmerer is unstoppable this year. Fresh off the launch of Forging Silver Into Stars the first installment in a new spinoff series set in her megapopular Cursebreakers universe earlier this year, she’s also launching the second book in her Defy the Night trilogy, her other big sweeping high fantasy adventure saga this Fall. Just typing all that out makes me tired, so your guess is as good as mine about how she’s accomplishing churning out all these words.
Though the two series have many elements in common: A feisty, fish-out-of-water heroine forced to learn to survive in a world she’s not used to; a gruff, emotionally stoic prince who likes to get his own way; and a fast-paced narrative that deftly switches between perspectives in a way that actually adds something to the story, Defend the Dawn is perhaps Kemmerer’s most introspective book yet, allowing readers a chance to really get inside the heads of her characters and go deep into their often churning, conflicting viewpoints. The downside of this, of course, is that this is also one of her slowest books yet, and a story that generally privileges conversation over action. (Right up until the last few chapters anyway.)
Defend the Dawn picks up essentially where Defy the Night left off. Having thwarted a revolution, King Harristan of Kandala and the rest of his ruling council must negotiate with the rebels in an attempt to find a more equitable distribution strategy for the medicine that’s helping keep them all alive. But supplies of the Moonflower that are critical to making that lifesaving elixir remain dangerously low and plenty of nobles don’t much care for the idea of sacrificing any of their own supply to help the poor residents of the impoverished Wilds sector.
So when a handsome ship’s captain named Rian Blakemore shows up, claiming to be the son of a spy sent to the neighboring kingdom of Ostriary under the reign of Harristan’s father and offering a bounty of Moonflowers in exchange for steel and a new trade agreement between the two nations, everyone is eager to hear him out. A trade delegation, consisting of Harristan’s brother Prince Corrick, apothecary Tessa Cade, and rebel leader Lochlan Cresswell,l is tapped to journey to Ostriary with Captain Blakemore and hopefully hammer out a treaty that will increase Kandala’s access to Moonflower, allowing Harristan to keep his people alive while giving Tessa time to find an alternative treatment.
The bulk of the book is subsequently taken up by their slow sea journey toward Ostriary, as Kemmerer builds a backstory for this new kingdom, Captain Blakemore, and the various members of his crew. Tessa is immediately taken with the handsome captain and his aggressive idealism, while Corrick is mistrustful and on guard for a trick. The close quarters force the pair—who initially fell in love when the prince was masquerading as a Robin Hood type willing to steal medicine from the wealthy sectors to distribute amongst the poor—to take a new look at their relationship, and the thoughtful, even-handed way they Kemmerer handles the roots of their conflict is admirable.
But if Defy the Night was predominantly Tessa’s story, then Defend the Dawn is clearly Corrick’s, as he struggles to figure out what kind of leader he wants to become and how much of himself he’s willing to sacrifice in the name of protecting and advancing Kandala’s interests. Kemmerer pulls no punches about the wide variety of dark and often grisly things he’s had to do in his role as the King’s Justice, and Corrick is honest about the fact that he doesn’t regret most of them. His pragmatic determination is refreshing, though the book occasionally leans a bit too heavily on the idea that Corrick’s behavior is simply because he is a cynical person, particularly when contrasted to Tessa’s starry-eyed optimism (rather than really wrestling with the fact that he’s come by his trepidation and caution very honestly.)
Sadly, Tessa is perhaps the book’s weakest element, which is a real shame given how the feisty, rebellious heroine was such a highlight of the series’ first installment. Here, however, Tessa often comes across as painfully, even willfully, naive—and her constant suspicion of Corrick in the face of her open-hearted belief in the goodness of almost every other character becomes quite grating by the end of the story, as does her seemingly endless vacillation about her feelings for him. There are, thankfully, a few moments of pointed self-reflection for them both—such as when Corrick calls her out on her need to embrace the quick fix of vigilante justice rather than do the slow and often boring work of real change, or when he is forced to realize how his refusal to punish some of the nobles looks to those he’s claiming to want to help.
Defend the Dawn is at its best when it’s exploring the ways that both love and politics often require us to extend a hand of grace to someone we disagree with or who has let us down in some significant way. In Defy the Night we saw Tessa forced to learn that the world is less black and white than she once believed it to be. After all, it’s easy to call for revolution when you’re not responsible for the careful balancing act required to both maintain the peace and get the most medicine possible into the hands of those that need it. Though our heroine seems to backslide a bit in this installment—her immediate decision to believe Captain Blakemore and trust his motives without reservation is….a choice!—Corrick takes two steps forward, at least when it comes to seeing the value of perspectives outside his own and understanding that sometimes desperate people only have bad choices open to them, as much as he might wish it were otherwise.
But despite Kemmerer’s trademark propulsive writing style—you’ll breeze through this novel despite its length—too much of Defend the Dawn feels like filler and much of the story spins its wheels with repetitive conversations and duplicative scenes (we get it, Rian and Corrick don’t like each other!) until we reach the final quarter of the book where the real action starts and shocking revelations abound. As a result, while I’ve no doubt the third book in this trilogy will be thrilling, it’s hard not to miss the story this book might have told on its own.
Defend the Dawn is available now from Bloomsbury Children’s.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.