Alexis Radcliff’s A Vanishing Glow is subtitled “Vol. I & II of the Mystech Arcanum,” so it’s no surprise that it feels like the beginning of an epic series. What’s satisfying, though, is the way that Radcliff mixes worldbuilding with character work and plotting to make a book that works on its own terms, and doesn’t rely entirely on setting up payoffs in books to come. Indeed, the best strength Radcliff displays here is for character building, making heroes that are flawed, interesting, compelling, and likable, all while radiating an intelligence and thoughtfulness that makes them believable as protagonists. Between a soldier turned reluctant politician and a demolition expert wracked by a broken heart, Radcliff invests us in our heroes and makes their setbacks effective not just on a story level, but in terms of how they affect our heroes.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a lot of story going on, though. Radcliff spins a complex tale about political maneuvering, peasant rebellions that may or may not be a feint, mechanical men, and schemes within schemes; the end result feels like it’s got more than a hint of Game of Thrones to it (and Radcliff seems equally willing to kill characters that you might think would live), but manages to stand on its own thanks to its unique world that blends science and magic into something rich and interesting. More than that, the world and the story feed off of each other in the way that the best fantasy stories can manage, where the one is inseparable from the other, and the environment shapes the actions of those who live there.
Sure, I have a few issues with the book here and there – there’s one big reveal near the end of the first volume that feels a bit obvious, and there’s a major event that happens to our primary protagonist about halfway through that feels largely forgotten about, despite how incredibly major it seems. (Without spoiling too much, I’ll just say that it seems odd that none of the other characters so much as comment on what would be an obvious physical change, and it kind of disappointed me how little the book did with that element.) But by and large, it was an enjoyable, well-crafted read, anchored by Radcliff’s solid prose, good character work, and interesting world-building. No, it may not be perfect, but it’s very, very good – heck, it’s got me curious about volume 3, and that’s not something that happens with every fantasy debut I review these days.