Reviewing Carla Doria’s debut novel, The Last Families, honestly is a case study in the necessity of good editing for this particular reviewer. Because of that, before anything else, I would like to state clearly and for the record that I liked this story. I think that there is some mismanagement in the way its description sells the novel, and there are regrettable technical aspects of the text, but underneath that there is much to enjoy in Doria’s work.
The Last Families opens on four ships as they arrive at a mysterious island after a long and treacherous voyage. Each ship contains the various members of four different, extended families, and in turn each of these families has their own distinctive hair, eye, and skin coloring, as well as a unique, hereditary power: the Ninfire clan flies, the Drontas are strong, the Kaptarish can produce immense heat, and the Verbaren read minds. These gifts have helped preserve the different families for decades and now, when necessity means that the next generation will be forced to seek mates outside their distinct clan, there is tension between the families and old prejudices that must be reexamined.
With that in the background, the families have fled their own, dying land, and come to Gambir, a sun-soaked island where the daily weather fluctuations are deadly, the natives are hostile, and the long-sought refuge the voyagers thought they’d found may be anything but a safe harbor. Unravelling the mystery of Gambir and its inhabitants, and working to save and extract all of the members of these four families from Gambirian clutches is the driving force of the novel. As far as twists, turns, and pacing are concerned, it’s a worthy plot. Doria has an instinct for building tension and delivering foreshadowing, and the situations she throws her characters into illicit genuine worry, anger, and triumph at the dangers, the antagonists, and the small victories her characters experience.
All of that said, the back-cover blurb of The Last Families hints that there are two main characters, and that their budding romance will be a major component of the plot. The two characters in question are indeed leading figures, and there is a budding romance, but this is an ensemble cast far more than a protagonist duet. A quick count comes up with a half dozen primary protagonists, each with multiple chapters told from their point of view, alongside another handful of secondary characters who get their own share of the text’s chapters. In marketing this as a fantasy romance Doria does disservice to the fascinating dynamics that come into play when an author juggles this many characters and their points of view. It is a rare writer who can create a satisfying ensemble novel, and (as with her plot) Doria seems to have good instincts in this department. I wish she would flaunt them a little more.
Finally, there is the editing. I have an educated guess about why there are prevalent grammatical mistakes, particularly the misuse of pronouns and the frequent mix-up of near-homophones (“surround” being used in place of “surrender”, for example), but what it boils down to is a lack of professional editing. Most readers can and will gloss over a scattering of editing slubs over the course of a novel without notice or comment, but the frequency of these easily rectified mistakes muddles Doria’s writing to the point of distraction. Without the grammatical mistakes, The Last Families would have been an easy 4, or even 5 star read for me. However, as the text stands right now, I have to give it a 3.5 for the editing alone.