Author: Jay Kristoff
Release Date: 2016
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
My Rating: ★★★★★(4.5/5)
Review on Goodreads
I am so in love with this kind of fantasy; the kind that gives you thrills and chills through the power of complex worldbuilding alone. But this book also delivers on humor and character development, and though it took me a while to get into it, by the end I was hooked.
First, I’ll address three things: why I struggled to get into this book at first, the primary reason other people struggle to get into this book, and the problematic aspects to this book.
1. I struggled to get into this book because of the first 100 pages, which, frankly, needed hefty editing. I mean, it’s difficult with high fantasy because there’s so much background you need to introduce to your readers before the story really finds its feet, but I think an author with as much skill as Kristoff should have found a better way to do this. It is only after 100 pages that Mia actually arrives at the Red Church to begin her training, and everything before then feels like filler.
2. The writing. Not only does Kristoff utilize…unusual metaphors and similes, the story is told through the eyes of a seemingly omniscient narrator who knew Mia, and the book utilizes footnotes. I will say the footnotes did take some getting used to. I was not sure how I felt about them at first; they distracted me from the narrative, and I assumed they were just a way to infodump. The infodump part is partly true, but I actually didn’t mind at all? I enjoyed the worldbuilding so much I grew to look forward to the footnotes because I wanted to know more about this world, plus the narrator is absolutely hilarious. As for the writing, yes, I will admit that Kristoff uses some seriously weird expressions, some that had me rolling my eyes, some that had me reeling back in confusion. However, I didn’t mind this! These funny hyperbolic similes were pretty funny, and they never really overtake the narrative at all. Mostly, they’re just tossed in here and there as added spice, but for the most part the writing is fine. (Though, keep in mind that I am a fan of purple prose!) So, while I see where some reviewers are coming from, I think the complaints about the writing are themselves hyperbolic.
3. In this book there are a race of people called the Dwymeri (I’m probably spelling that wrong). They are dark-skinned pirates with dreadlocks and facial tattoos. You would think that any author with any semblance of sense would know not to depict his only dark-skinned race as barbaric savage rapists. Like, it just seems so obvious, no? Apparently the Dwymeri have been likened to the Maori – because of my own background, I didn’t read them as Maori at all, but rather as North African/Amazigh (who also have a tradition of facial tattoos). They probably are based on the Maori, though, given that Kristoff is Australian. Either way, this was kind of a facepalming moment. I think Kristoff was trying to do something with subverting expectations here, with the half-Dwymeri character of Tric, but it just…didn’t go so smoothly. It wouldn’t, when your only POC analogy are famous for being rapists. Just… Not a Good Look.
Okay, now, onto the things I loved!
Worldbuilding: I’ve been reading high fantasy for as long as I can remember, and one of my favorite things about the genre is discovering the intricacies and details of a new world. And Kristoff delivers. I’m reminded a bit of A Song of Ice and Fire, in that various little details the narrative offers literally give me chills! It’s clear Kristoff put a ton of effort into this worldbuilding, and even with the footnotes, it’s evident that this is only the tip of the iceberg. Heavily inspired by old world Venice and the Roman Empire, where the worldbuilding truly shines is with its religion, which is heavily tied into the world’s ever-present three suns. I don’t know how to keep praising the worldbuilding without actually describing it in intense detail, which would take up much more time than I want to devote to this review, so I will just say that this book is reminiscent of old-school high fantasy that truly feels like a new world rather than just a rip-off of our own. In other words, this ain’t fantasy lite, folks.
Characters & Dynamics: I was excited to meet Mia, our main character, but I was also surprised at how much I enjoyed all of the other characters here. They’re all so very much their own people. Mia’s romantic interest, Tric, felt so real as a teenage boy: mostly sweet, occasionally surly, prickly, easily sparked temper, proud. I have to admit that I wasn’t especially partial to his and Mia’s romance because I am already aware that there’s a f/f relationship coming up between Mia and another character I absolutely adored, but if it weren’t for that I think I would have liked the romance, which is to say, it was well done (and I’ll say this for Kristoff, his sex scenes are excellent).
Mia’s a fantastic heroine, and I have to say that one of the dynamics I enjoyed the most was her connection to Mister Kindly, the shadow demon thing that is tied to her power over shadows and darkness and who is always by her side. When I first started reading I was wary about this cat-but-not-a-cat anthropomorphic shadow thing (I don’t like talking animals in my fantasy), but by the end Mister Kindly and Mia became my favorite thing ever. They have such a fascinating relationship – Mister Kindly manifested when Mia was a child, as a result of her trauma and her life being in danger. He feeds off her fear, and as a result Mia is always calm and unafraid, but it also means that Mister Kindly is invested making sue Mia has reasons to be stressed out and afraid. But at the same time it’s clear he cares deeply for her; after all, he is her shadow, with her at all times.
Realism: I know, why am I talking about realism in a high fantasy book? I’m not even sure this is the proper word to use, but I shall explain. So, I’ve seen this book described as Hogwarts with assassins, and that is a super apt description! That is definitely what came to mind when I first started reading it. But, given that the Red Church trains assassins, it’s about as vicious as you might expect. The instructors aren’t there to coddle you; they are actively trying to thin the herd, to weed out the weaklings. So, they torture their students, they poison their students, they test them in all sorts of horrible ways. There are some seriously gruesome and cruel scenes in this book, but it all just lends the story authenticity. It’s a school of assassins, after all.
Plot: Honestly, even by the mid-point of the book I was preparing to bemoan the plot in my review, because it seemed like it was kind of flimsy. I mean, it was very well-written and engaging, but it didn’t seem strong to me. By the end, however, I was eating my words (or thoughts, as it were). This book was just so thrilling and enjoyable! There’s amazing twists (none of which I could see coming, which always makes me happy) and fantastic action scenes and mysteries and unanswered questions and things just got more and more interesting as time went on, building up to a superb climax.
Humor: Yes, this needs its own category. This book is freaking hilarious. Not only is the omniscient narrator witty and snarky as hell, but Mia herself is pretty funny, and a lot of the dialogue made me laugh out loud. It was just a ton of fun.
Okay, this review has gotten much longer than I wanted it to be. Just, overall, a well-written book with great characters and incredible worldbuilding and a Cool Factor and a fun plot if you just get past the hurdle of the first 100 pages. If you like fantasy, you need to read this.