The Burning City by Alaya Dawn Johnson
I’ve read the first installment in several series and decided not to pursue them–case in point, Racing the Dark. It was enjoyable, but it didn’t grab me. So I returned Racing the Dark to the library and didn’t give it another thought… until I was given the opportunity to read and review The Burning City, its sequel. I enjoyed Racing the Dark enough to accept, and in any case, Alaya Dawn Johnson’s unique world is a draw in itself. Oh, and the cover was pretty. It did take me embarrassingly long to realize that the girl on the cover is not Lana, the main character, but I digress. Naturally, spoilers for Racing the Dark abound after the jump.
The Burning City picks up where Racing the Dark left off; the great city of Essel is in ruins after a volcanic eruption that announced that the fire spirit was struggling against its bonds–and could win. A power struggle has emerged between the insane Mo’i, Kohaku, and the rebels that want to see Essel under anyone’s rule but his. Lana, now a black angel, is searching for her mother, recently kidnapped by her old mentor, Akua. But Lana finds herself working with the rebels instead of searching for her mother, and finds herself faced with a question–what is more valuable, the life of her mother or the many lives of the people still under Kohaku’s reign of terror?
The Burning City suffers immensely for spending the first half of the novel focused on the political situation in Essel, instead of the spiritual situation that I had assumed was the focus of the trilogy. Normally, this would be fine, except that Racing the Dark ended on a terrifying note; the fire spirit’s bonds were breaking, as evidenced by the volcanic eruption. It’s downright frustrating to come out of that great moment into political squabbling, especially when they take up half of the novel. That first half just dragged for me, because I wanted to know more about the spirits, Akua, and Lana’s relationship with both rather than Essel politics. It’s not helped by the fact that a lot of the political intrigue focuses on Nahoa, a character whose dialogue, for some reason, always feels forced and unnatural to me, although I like her just fine in the abstract. Perhaps if the political intrigue had been better balanced with Lana’s relationship with the spirits and her quest for her mother instead of superseding them, it would have worked. As it is, it doesn’t–the novel only picks up when Lana focuses back on Akua and the spirit world.
I also think the first half suffers because the book opens with a prologue that rehashes the events of Racing the Dark in four pages, which actually made me laugh out loud. I’m of the belief that any book in a series ought to be able to be picked up and enjoyed as a novel in its own right; sure, you might not catch all the little details or enjoy it to its fullest, but it ought to at least work. Events in previous books pertinent to the matters at hand ought to pop up organically. What’s worse is that the prologue is absolutely unnecessary, as Johnson does mention important events at the right moment in the novel itself. It’s just a bizarre thing to include, although I did much appreciate the character and nation guide included directly after it.
The world presented in The Spirit Binders is still fresh and original, and Johnson even cleared up some of my confusion about its geography. It’s expanded upon well in The Burning City, especially the history of the original bindings. At the end of the first book, Lana received a book written during that time period, and it’s woven into the novel. (It’s often the only interesting thing happening in the first half!) We learn about the development of the philosophy of bindings, the different views towards it, and the history of the islands. While I was a bit iffy about the black book at first, because I was still perturbed by the slow first half, I quite enjoyed it, especially towards the end. Johnson’s problems with development have definitely improved, although I quite think some foreshadowing could have been put in the first book to pay off here. The second half, which focuses on all this, is actually good.
The Burning City introduces several new characters, most of them rebels. I don’t want to say that they’re not interesting, but their subplot really distracts from the main plot, even if it is supposedly to help Lana mature as a character. I enjoyed Sabolu, a young girl attempting to parlay the rebellion into opportunity for herself, as well as Senona Ahi, the fire guardian. But both only appear briefly. Kohaku’s madness loses the bite it had in Racing the Dark and his rationalization for his violence peters out, which may be one of the reasons the rebellion plot is so weak. In this novel, Lana comes into her own, able to hold her ground against others despite, or perhaps because of, her despised condition. Interestingly enough, the death that stalks Lana gets its own development, and I really enjoyed that small character arc. But even all this can’t make up for the first half.
Bottom line: The Burning City suffers from an unnecessary prologue and a first half that focuses on a lackluster rebellion rather than the interesting spirit world that’s the main focus of the series, which makes it drag. Even the interesting world, the character development, and good second half can’t fix it. Unless you really want to read this series, I would pass.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher for review.