Bright Ruin: taking back control of Britain

Book cover: Bright Ruin - Vic James (a hand grasping golden lightning against an orange-red London skyline)The Hadleys are on the run, at the heart of a struggle that is challenging their convictions about who they are. The Jardines are in control of the country, the ruthless Chancellor happy committing atrocities and ruling by fear. But power is a slippery thing, and family can’t be trusted any more than rebels…

Bright Ruin is the final book in the Dark Gifts trilogy, and if you haven’t read the first two, you don’t want to start here. It picks up within minutes of the brutal ending of Tarnished City, so this review includes incidental spoilers for the first two books (but minimal spoilers for this one).

I commented on Tarnished City that it brought Luke and Abi Hadley into sharper definition: Bright Ruin completes their journeys, but at the price of showing us less of the Equals. Perhaps it’s only fair that at the climax of the fight for equality, the ruling Equals are portrayed in brief, self-interested snippets while the underdogs come to vibrant, conflicted life.

Nonetheless, I’ll admit to being a little sad at how few chapters were from the perspective of Silyen Jardine. The sharp-edged, secretive boy has become a young man of immense power, able to steal the Gifts of others. In spite of his complete lack of understanding of the unSkilled, Silyen wants to bring a sense of wonder to Britain, to give the people leaders they can look up to rather than fear (ironic in many ways). Consequently, he’s more interested in the semi-mythical Wonder King, long-vanished Equal monarch of Britain, than in the current political landscape – even though he could single-handedly upset the apple cart.

I was never entirely clear whether the sudden surge in Equals’ Skills is simply in response to their increased use of them, or something Silyen has stirred up. The ambiguity comes in part from seeing Silyen mostly through Luke’s eyes; while the boys’ bond grows stronger – and less magical – Silyen isn’t given to discussing his actions. Besides, Luke’s immediate concern is to rescue Cora from Eilean Dochais, and to wonder whether Silyen really is flirting with him.

As in Tarnished City, Luke remains the unexpected beacon of humanity at the heart of a dark world. He genuinely cares for Cora; he is as passionate about the fate of the one as Abi is about the fate of the many. Cut off from the news on Silyen’s estate, he can be wholly motivated by love and compassion, and can convince himself that it is a sensible strategy to stay at Farr Carr and win his odd benefactor’s support. He feels almost wilfully naive, given to day dreams and grand plans that never quite acknowledge how odd a duck Silyen is; and how little of their unexpected connection is magical. It could be frustrating, but the Wonder King subplot is sufficiently intriguing (I couldn’t quite guess where that was leading) and Luke’s point of view makes for a break from the relentless ugliness of Jardine rule. Besides, it’s cute watching the boys’ attraction grow.

Meanwhile, Abi remains at the heart of the resistance. She has rejected her feeling that the revolution will be meaningless if it’s led by Equals – after the horror and terror of the Blood Fair, she’ll use any weapon to hand, regardless of whether she thinks the privileged can ever truly understand what their allies are fighting. Yet it helps, I think (from both Abi and this reader’s perspective), that the new resistance leader is a black, lesbian Equal with an unSkilled lover – Midsummer understands her privilege and faces prejudice on her own account, as well as having plenty to lose if the Jardine vision for Britain holds sway.

And Midsummer is a strong, admirable leader. Both she and Bouda have a flair for dramatic magical confrontations (very telegenic), but Midsummer has an ethical framework to go with it. Whilst happy to advocate property damage, she has a fine sense of where to draw the line to prevent the resistance from being cast unequivocally as terrorists in the media. I enjoyed watching Midsummer orchestrate her campaign far more than seeing Whittam execute his rather by-the-numbers dystopia.

But Midsummer is not the leader Abi needs. From idealistic medical student to obedient servant, Abi has been forged by rage, grief and determination into a weapon. While the plot felt a little contrived in forcing that change (Whittam is nothing if not predictable), hats off to Vic James for making Abi’s emotional journey from medical student to no-holds-barred rebel feel believable. She’s also an effective mirror to Bouda: the commoner who can’t believe what Equals will do to other people, as opposed to the Equal who can’t believe people won’t do whatever it takes to advance their own interests.

I even felt sorry for Bouda, in the end, on a human level. Not very sorry – she’s a terrible person – but nonetheless.

This finale wasn’t entirely what I expected – the mythical elements felt a little out of left-field on this first reading, but I know they were seeded from the start. This is a trilogy that will benefit from being read back to back, and I think on a reread it will all play out smoothly (better: I want to reread it). All in all, this is a convincing finish to a solid dystopian trilogy, with a satisfying emotional arc and complex, conflicted characters.


I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Bright Ruin is available now in the UK.