Originally, I was going to open this review with a roast of the book titles because they are so long, but honestly, given how appropriate the names are and how boring most fantasy book titles are I have no ground to stand on. Okay, so today I want to spend some time talking about a series that way too many people are sleeping on that deserves your attention. If you somehow have gotten this far without reading the title, I am talking about The Licanius Trilogy by James Islington. I have talked about book one, The Shadow of What was Lost, briefly here, and gave a full review of the second book, An Echo of Things to Come, here. I enjoyed both books immensely, but it was not until I read the recently released third and final book, The Light of All that Falls, that I truly understood what a gem I had discovered.
On its own, The Light of All that Falls is a very strong book. It does everything that a conclusion should do – has a climactic finale, shows the emotional conclusions of several powerful character arcs, has some game-changing reveals that alter how you read its predecessor, and has a strong interesting plot with good pacing that engrosses you from page one. However, the true brilliance of Light is how it completes the series-long puzzle that is Licanius and allows you to take a step back and see the bigger picture.
If there is one criticism I have of this series, it’s that it’s designed to be read in one continuous sitting. The books are extremely complicated, and despite Islington adding a very nice preface that summarizes past events, it is not comprehensive enough to remember all the nuances of the story after a break between books. But, the reason a synopsis isn’t enough is that these three books form an elegant exploration into time-travel and the way time functions. If you read my review of Echo, you will get a good gist of the plot of all three books, but I will summarize it here:
The Licanius series takes place in a magical world where a good god and an evil god went at it. The good one lost (and presumably died), but not before locking the bad one behind a giant magical barrier in the north of the world. Since then, humanity has tried to survive in the south with the traditional set-up of multiple countries that hate one another. In addition, the world has three distinct groups of magic users that have fallen in and out of favor over time. The first and most common are the Gifted, mages with the ability to alter the world around them – usually with some form of telekinesis. When our story begins in book one, they are an oppressed and feared people due to their powers, but allowed to live with a brand that makes them unable to use their magic to harm others. Next, we have the Augers; these much rarer mages have various abilities to manipulate time and occasionally see into the future. The augurs, after ruling the world poorly in the wake of the evil god’s containment, have been hunted and killed wherever they are found due to their dangerous abilities. Finally, we have the Venerate, a small group of super augers who have ascended to deity-like power and are essentially immortal. The books follow a group of individuals from a mix of these magical (and other non-magical) groups as they help the reader piece together the history of what happened in this world and how to stop the release of the evil god stuck behind the barrier.
The above is what I wrote upon finishing Echo, and it is still a decent in-the-weeds summary of the plot of the book. On the other hand, it doesn’t touch on the high-level idea of Licanius, which didn’t become clear until I was close to finishing the series: this is a trilogy about two competing schools of time travel. On the one hand, you have the antagonists. The villains of the series believe that time is malleable. They are convinced that if they can change the world in certain ways, often through horrific actions, they can learn how to alter the past – thus going back and fixing tragedies and erasing the horrible things they have done to get there. The protagonists believe that time is fixed (spoilers: they’re right). Although you can travel in time, there is nothing that you can do to change the events of the past. If you go back in time, you were always going to go back in time, and you are just fulfilling an action you have always taken.
This thought experiment, and Islington’s exploration of it in particular, is absolutely incredible. First off, it paints the antagonists as incredibly relatable and human. They are simply people who are doubling down on a bad bet that they think will solve everything. It is more akin to reading about a family member with a gambling problem than a megalomaniac bent on destroying the world. Second, because all time-travel has already happened, it was always going to happen, and is happening – the books are constantly evolving in your mind. You read the series linearly in time, seeing these time travelers pop out of nowhere to do things. And as you get further and further in the series, you start to understand the circumstances that caused them to come back and watch the characters wrestle with the knowledge that they already know what they are going to do. It creates this insane logic puzzle you get to wrestle with as you try to figure out the chain of events that encompass the book. One example of how this is explored is one character has already seen how he dies (which is metal as all hell by the way). Because he knows how he dies, in the past, he constantly grapples with the idea that he might be unkillable in the present, but that he also HAS to go back to the past to die. It is an incredible situation to watch this character grapple with, and Islington is a master of exploring their emotional response.
Another thing I love about the time travel in Licanius is that since you cannot change the course of history, Islington never uses time travel to fix events. The stakes always feel real because there are no do-overs and no changing what happened. The series has an interesting balance – with the page space devoted to time manipulation heavily weighted to the later books. Shadow is mostly an epic fantasy with a few small time-travel elements, Echo starts to treat them as equals, and Light is a cornucopia of time travel shenanigans. Finally, Islington must be some sort of five-dimensional chess player because every single plotline, every single question, and every single weird event that the reader experiences, comes together in the end. It just locks together in this incredible mosaic of storytelling that is satisfying on a deep emotional level.
The Light Of All That Falls is a shining jewel in an already exemplary series. Although the series takes a serious time commitment to best enjoy it, The Licanius Trilogy is worth every second of the time that you give it. These books shimmer and shine with Islington’s unending passion for the world and enormous skill as a writer. The passage of time will reveal Licanius to be a modern classic that readers will enjoy for years to come. Do yourself a favor, carve out a solid month of reading, and sit down with these books.
The Light Of All That Falls – 9.5/10
The Licanius Trilogy – 9.5/10