I would like to share with you the review I received from Poppet for Ancient Illumination. It's brilliant! Thank you, Poppet!
In this traditional fantasy story Elaina Davidson starts it off with the brutal severity of its setting. Life as we know it is ending. There are only five of them left and they've left behind home, comfort, civilisation's corpse, in the hopes of finding Castle Drakon.
They have trundled through arctic conditions to reach a cave; bone weary, disheartened, and desperate. This cave is not on a map, it's simply a 'feeling' they have followed, like a wish that they can survive the annihilation which swept across the planet Drakonis. The story is told through Brennan's eyes, and her companions include the brothers Bastian and Cole. They seem a disparate bunch, with issues. For one: Audri doesn't speak, from shame or trauma, only time will tell.
The cave is inhabited by Winter, a wizened old man with magic in his pockets (such heavy pockets they make noises regularly), and his two companions, a dwarf and an old woman. Except the old woman feels so familiar, even looks familiar.
The intrigue is thick from the get-go, and like most of Davidson's work this one pulled me in quickly to take me on a journey I won't soon forget. All five characters and the three in the cave have something in common, and this commonality falls outside the realm of 'mere mortal'. (I'm skirting around details here so I don't ruin the read).
Drakonis faced fires and now it's facing an ice-age. Human pride is the same on any planet, and the biggest fear seems to be that 'we'll be forgotten' by the time life re-emerges on this plane. In a bid to be remembered these characters are trying to escape Drakonis' fate, so that our memory lives on, so that we'll never be forgotten. Winter enables their passage by giving the crew intel they require to reach the portal which is Castle Drakon, and then gives them the contents of his pockets (bar one).
Full disclosure happens swiftly, and now both brothers (Cole and Bastion) are looking at Brennan in a very different light. She is best friends with one, and attracted to the other, what a conundrum for her to be in now (of all times) when our memory is at stake, and why would they fail as a group if she doesn't choose one or the other (?).
Davidson does this, she puts her characters in dire situations and then gives them impossible choices to make, when they are distraught, when they have no time to contemplate, when they are dehydrated, starving, emaciated, dirty, and on the cusp of losing all hope.
Halley shows them the movement of memory, memory being a very central theme to this. It begs the question, why do we care so much about memory? Is it because we've forgotten something crucial, something so important that if we remembered all history would be altered, everything we've done a sham? Is our civilisation built on lies? Why do we care if we're forgotten when our civilisation dies and our planet kills us? Maybe … just maybe, it's because we've forgotten, and on a cellular level, deep down in our memory, we know it.
This is the underlying spine of this tale, it's tall, proud, strong, but it's hidden by the flesh of so many centuries, so many millennia, that we've forgotten what all our rituals and tales hide, we think our history is accurate, but it's not. History is designed to force you into forgetting, ritual is a subtle reminder, but mankind pays so very little attention to understanding ritual (they just parrot without looking deeper at the origins). The characters suddenly gain this insight.
In a bid to hide the truth on Drakonis all ritual was banned, worship was outlawed, and anyone remembering, speaking, or practising truth was to be eliminated without judge or jury. Being truthful was an act of anarchy, one practised only by outlaws. Even exposing true names would result in death, so our main character is reluctant to give hers to strangers – she knows the penalty.
How familiar this all sounds – don't shame the rapist, shame the raped. Oh yes, this system has been in place for so long mankind remembers no other way to be (at our peril). Davidson doesn't say as much, but she's pointing fingers throughout this tense excursion to Drakon Castle. It's a nirvana, a place to escape to, an escape from certain death; hope then. But once they enter hope, they discover this is not what they were told. The legends lied, the reality is so far removed from what they thought they'd find that they are trapped and horrified.
As with any good story they won't all make it out alive, this is after all the very end of existence. Castle Drakon is supposed to reverse the journey, but the reversing of the journey would mean surrendering everything we are, everything we hold dear, and utterly obliterating our morals and ethics. Right and wrong go out the window, leaving one male and one female with a horrendous choice. Do they want to be remembered – now?
Winter warned them to use light with caution, for light reveals (truth will too). Illumination comes with understanding, and when we understand do we even like what it is we now comprehend (?). The answer in this tale is, no.
This is about the secret of Castle Drakon, and the characters discover it. I fell so completely into this tale; it was fraught, it was a real quest I'd expect from an epic fantasy author, and she did it so well in the space of what would usually only take up 2 chapters in one of her novels. I cared about what happened to them, I was riveted to the dilemmas and 'choices', and I gobbled up this story to reach the ending (for closure).
Shadows have presence, they are palpable and as real as light, they shift, move, have atmosphere, and they fuel our fears. We've always been warned about the dangers in the dark. Drakonis goes into its dark phase. Humanity that scorns truth, who persecutes it, well that is a humanity that have entered their dark phase. The dark ages are when tyranny is allowed rule without challenge, and when rulers have carte blanche to suppress, repress, and quash their people. It is now.
The final words gave me such a cold chill I got goosebumps. I agreed. I agreed with those final words, I agreed with the choice. Some things are best left forgotten. Would you like to be remembered? Why? Would you like humanity to remember this world and what we did here? Are you proud of our wars, the enslavement of other cultures and people, of the daily domestic violence, crime, - tyranny (?) Are you proud of taxes, of it being illegal to feed the poor, for illness to become the new plague because all welfare and charity are now illegal and scorned? There is a lot of hatred and horror in this world, there is a lot of darkness despite the sun shining still. Will we become the next Drakonis? If someone keeps you in the dark, is it fair of them to enforce you to stay in it because you are 'family'? This too is a question posed in this tale.
Davidson takes on some massive issues in this highly entertaining tale, and it pulls back the shadows to expose what lurks there. And once you know, once you've seen, you know your choice. Some like their darkness, it's a familiar pain, their drama is their own and it's wrong of them to expect family to join their pantomime if it means surrendering who you are to please someone else. You have to live for you, no one else but you.
Bravo Elaina Davidson! I loved your story, I loved what you hid between the lines, I loved where you shone the illumination. It is ancient illumination indeed when we follow our own instinct instead of surrendering to familial pressure.
This short story Ancient Illumination from the anthology The Secrets of Castle Drakon, is a PERFECT example of Davidson's writing. She'll make you care, she'll suck you in, she'll transport you out of your mundane life into an alternate reality, and once you're there she will take you on a journey that exposes their issues, and ours. It will be familiar – but not. It's the perfect teaser to her other writing, which is epic fantasy, doing this but on a much broader canvas. I am as always impressed with this author's scope and ability, her skill will one day be recognised and she will be a name revered. Well done girl! Well done!