Carol Berg’s Lighthouse Duet is one of the best fantasy series I’ve ever read, and is in many ways responsible for my commitment to picking through the backlists of fantasy authors who never really captured the popular imagination. As it turns out, a lot of my favorite books fall into that category. And yet I dragged my feet on reading Berg’s Sanctuary Duet, a second duology that takes place at the same time as the Lighthouse Duet in a different part of her Navronne universe. I was afraid that knowing how the previous duology resolved would inevitably spoil the next one. But as I often do, I got the nudge in the form of an online readalong, and it’s safe to say that I was wrong.
The Sanctuary Duet stars Lucian de Remeni, a pureblood sorcerer with a bent for portraiture whose life seems to spiral out of control after a fire claims the lives of all but two of his family. Despite his personal tragedy and the civil war raging outside, the Pureblood Registry seems intent on punishing him for a youthful dalliance with an ordinary, forcing him into an insulting contract that will never pay enough to maintain his household. But this new contract awakens magic he’d thought gone forever, and thrusts him into an investigation that could shake the heights of the kingdom.
The Sanctuary Duet confirmed to me that Carol Berg is at her absolute best writing in the Navronne universe. She expertly sets the scene with an aristocratic prose style that uses enough uncommon terminology to evoke a sense of time and place without making the story difficult to read, while frontloading injustice and mystery to immediately engage the reader in the story. Two books of first-person narration provides plenty of time to really get to know Lucian as a character, but it’s easy to feel from the very start that he’s been wronged, and to be invested in discovering the reasons and righting the scales.
Unlike The Lighthouse Duet, which reads like one giant story split at the midway climax, The Sanctuary Duet feels like two distinct pieces of a larger whole. The animating crises remain the same—there is corruption in high society and a long-running magical malady that Lucian may have capacity to address—but shifts in time, location, and secondary characters make the books feel like they have cause to be presented separately and can be at least partially evaluated as distinct works. And I found the first to be the superior piece. As the opener, it has the advantage of more mysteries to work out, but the process of working out those mysteries was utterly compelling. Add a gruff-but-goodhearted secondary character who worked wonderfully with the lead and a conclusion that resolved enough plot to justify its existence as a complete book, and Dust and Light was an excellent read from start to finish.
If there were any weaknesses in the opener, they mostly came in the setup for Ash and Silver, which remained a quality read but just lacked a few of the standout elements of the first. It kept an excellent lead character and prose style, but the investigative aspects weren’t quite as strong, nor were the secondary characters. It did offer a satisfying conclusion that justified two books of investment in the story, but there were a couple plot-relevant schemes that seemed a touch too harebrained to be believed.
As I mentioned in the open, one aspect that impressed me immensely was the ability of the Sanctuary Duet to tell a complete story without spoiling the Lighthouse Duet. Both take place during the same civil war and delve deeply into both politics and the magic underlying it, and yet they manage to tell two distinct stories that can be read in any order without revealing major plot points from the other. I found The Sanctuary Duet to be a faster start and The Lighthouse Duet the stronger overall, but I’m mostly just excited to have more entry points into Navronne, where Carol Berg has more than one outstanding story to tell.
Recommended if you like: secondary world fantasy with tight character focus, stories about uncovering secrets, prose that evokes a place and time.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for Timey Wimey, Mental Health, and Family Matters, and both are Book Club books.
Overall rating: 18/20 for Dust and Light, 16/20 for Ash and Silver. For the duology as a whole, 17/20 on my blog scale, five stars on my Goodreads scale.