Every Word Chosen: Carol Berg’s Lighthouse Duet

I can’t actually remember which of Carol Berg’s books I read first, but the Lighthouse duet has always been my favorite. It might have been the covers that drew me originally with their evocative colors, or it might have been the name of the series. I come from a family of sailors, and I’ve always liked the idea of lighthouses as guiding lights in darkness and foul weather. I can’t say I expected the form this particular lighthouse took but that description fits it perfectly despite the differences. And that’s one of the reasons I love Berg’s stories. She takes cool ideas and points of familiarity and weaves them together into a dark, twisty, beautiful whole.

I find it easier to review books I’ve just read for the first time. Old favorites stubbornly refuse to be defined. But I’m stubborn too, and I always want to know why something affects me so deeply. This is my attempt to pick apart one of those favorites, free of spoilers.

Flesh and Spirit and its sequel, Breath and Bone, take place in a dying land full of both terrifying earnest murderers who believe torture is holy and mythical beings whose dancing nourishes the earth. Within this world lives Valen, a pureblood born with the ability to do magic but whose only goal is to remain free of the ruthless Pureblood Registry that seeks to control his life. Addicted to an enchantment that transforms pain into pleasure, Valen has abandoned most of his honor to cling to his freedom.

By all rights I should have hated Valen as the hero of any story. Rules make him feel ill, and he runs from anything resembling responsibility. My rule-following, society-conforming self should have liked Lucian of the related Sanctuary duet best. Yes, I loved Lucian, but I think Valen’s journey from renegade to hero struck a deeper cord with my buried idealism.

Berg’s skillful characterization reveals Valen’s redeeming qualities alongside those that made him a recondeur, a forsworn sorcerer, allowing us to see him in a truer and more complex light than the rest of his world. For instance, his rebellion endangers everyone who shelters him, but he is protective of the innocents in his path. He abandons the prince he chose to serve in the midst of battle, but he remains devoted to the memory of his dead king. And while he is as adept at lying as he is at running, his lies have never deliberately hurt anyone. All this and more combine to create a character who draws you into his thoughts and secrets and compels you to help him keep them. And as each secret is stripped away until there’s nothing left but truth, you’re right beside him as he embraces the things he swore he’d left behind forever.

I’m not sure I can think of any character who goes through as much growth and self discovery as Valen. Of course he finds the strength to grow within himself but the impetus of that growth comes from the men and women he admires. One of the things that makes Valen so easy to love is the way he is changed by the people around him. I loved the theme that when worthy people put their trust in unworthy knaves, those knaves rise to the challenge and become the salvation of the world.

As brilliant and seamless as the characterization is, it would be a mistake to think Valen and everything that helps and opposes him falls onto the page effortlessly. Berg’s characters grab our hearts because she works at it. She uses human emotion to make her stories stick. She is a masterful manipulator, and I love her for it. We don’t just watch as Valen loves and trusts and hates. We love and trust and hate too until our own emotions and attachments work to align us with Valen, and I don’t believe that’s an accident.

And Berg really understands the concept of challenging her characters. She gives them a worthy goal and then spends the next five hundred pages beating them senseless. But she still gives them the tools to succeed so when we turn the four hundred and ninety-ninth page, there are fireworks and a warm happy glow. We know that beloved characters really earned that (mostly) happy ending and maybe we can leave them alone for a little while to enjoy it. Luckily she also has a wonderful instinct for proportion. Her heroes never stay down for too long and her bad guys get their deliciously appropriate punishments.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Berg’s writing style. I don’t really like beautiful writing just for the sake of beauty. It has to tell me something too because otherwise it means nothing. With Berg, I get the feeling that every word was chosen for its worth. Not just in the action but in the imagery. I can see the beauty of a dying land and hear the whisper of abbey bells. And the smells. Oh, the smells. Smell is not normally an aspect of setting and character that I usually connect with, and everyone is always saying I need more of it in my own writing. In which case, Berg is definitely the master I should study under because boy, are her people and places pungent. All of these contribute to something I can only describe as atmosphere. The Lighthouse duet feels sharp and cold and misty, with a desperate hope underlying the pain.

I love Berg’s characters. I love her writing. I love her stories and the way every overlooked detail becomes an essential piece of the whole. I reread these books every other year or so and I catch something completely new every time. If you want to try some of her books, I would suggest the Lighthouse duet simply because they’re my favorite. Although fair warning, you can’t read just one. They were written together so you’ll want to have Breath and Bone in hand before finishing Flesh and Spirit. Then you can come back and tell me all the reasons you love Valen.

3 Comments

  • Weasel of Doom August 23, 2017 at 8:26 am

    Wow! I am sold!

    Reply
  • eawhitt August 23, 2017 at 11:41 am

    YES! Carol is one of my favorite authors ever, and you’ve pretty perfectly described many of the reasons why. I think that’s one of the reasons the Lighthouse Duet is such a favorite among so many of us, because she really hit that balance between destiny and personal agency, and people getting what they deserve in both punitive and redemptive ways. Carol is one of the only authors out there for whom I will just buy whatever she’s coming out with in hard copy, automatically. I follow many, many writers, but wait for a library copy or for a windfall in the budget…. Carol, I’ll budget around instead. She’s really, genuinely that good. Great review, Kendra! Now I’m tempted to go reread these instead of the other things I ought to do today….

    Reply
  • Lane Robins August 25, 2017 at 11:38 am

    I actually have and have had(!) these books sitting on mt TBR shelf for years! She’s in the section of the TBR that is the slowest moving because the expectations are the highest! Books in that section are books I want to savor so they’re the last ones I pick when I’m looking for something to read for an hour here and there. But I think this review and an upcoming weekend are pushing them to the top.

    Reply

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