This book wasn’t initially on my radar, but the people over at Fantasy Inn really enjoyed it and talked about it a lot. Then I saw some other friends with similar taste start to rave about this book over on Goodreads so I decided to give it a go.
I was very taken aback by the use of second-person narration in the prologue, I don’t typically click with that writing style, but strangely enough, I was sad when it ended. After just a few paragraphs, I had sunk into the prose and didn’t want it to end, I was blown away right from the beginning by the imagination used in this book. This was the first of many “exceptions” this book had in store for me, this broke all of the rules I have for my own taste – or thought I had, anyway.
This starts out with a robbery gone wrong, three thieves are tasked by their leader to bring something out of a vault in the Tower of Law. They make their way through the building checking every room looking for something that they can’t find. By no fault of their own, something in the building explodes, spreading alchemical fire throughout the tower which eventually brings it down. All of the noise and commotion alerts the guards, both of the Tallowman and human variety. The three thieves are chased down through the city, one, the ghoul named Rat gets away. The other two of the thieves, Cari and Spar, get arrested and are hauled off to a flooded prison located on an island.
Cari is a young girl who’s run away from home and become a thief, she’s quick and light on her feet which is handy for her trade. After being put in prison Cari is bailed out by a professor, Ongent, an archeologist and historian at the University. It’s not said at first why he did this, but he clearly had a purpose and intent. Cari has been having dreams lately that aren’t just dreams. While asleep she mumbled her way through the origins of the ghoul race in some kind of trance. She’s had a vision of a young priest who was melted away by some unknown force, a being that disguised itself as a woman interested in him only to ambush and kill him once she got him alone. Ongent doesn’t know what to make of it yet, but Cari is clearly special. She also has bravery about her and not just the ‘fighting’ kind of bravery, she lives with the Stone Man thief which most people wouldn’t do even if it was a family member. Stone Men suffer from a plague that started about 30 years ago turning their bodies into statues and acting as a slow death sentence. People afflicted with the disease have to keep moving or their bodies will calcify more quickly, in this world a good night’s sleep could result in you waking up paralyzed and near death.
Rat is a young ghoul, and as such he lives mostly underground in the dark damp caves and tunnels that number in the thousands below the city. He thinks of his kind as the true inhabitants of the city, with the people on top being like “flies” skittering only on the surface. His race is an ancient one that has three distinct life phases. Young ghouls can pass for human in low light, despite the fact they have hooves they are relatively human shaped and can communicate, they can also tolerate sunlight for short periods of time and are able to control their more basal instincts. Middle-aged ghouls tend are mostly feral, communicating only in howls and screams, living in swarms deep below the earth. Then there are the Elders, ancient beings of unimaginable power that hijack the bodies of others to speak for them. (Independence day shit). When rat was being chased by a Tallowman through the city he made it into his caves, where he ran into a woman named Aleena. She works for the Church of the Keepers on the surface and the Church has maintained a tenuous agreement between themselves and the ghouls for thousands of years. Something has brought her down to the depths searching for the Elders, something urgent. It takes hours to get down through the dark with tunnels made of the deepest blacks, so black that even Rat is unnerved. When they reach the Elders there’s an exchange with Aleena that Rat didn’t fully understand, however, he does know that the Elders are scared, what horrors could possibly scare the Elders? Who are these Ravellers that are supposed to be kept at bay? And could it have anything to do with Cari’s visions of a man unraveling before her eyes?
The characters stood out to me right away, which was exception number two this book threw at me. I usually take a while to warm up to characters, and since I know that I don’t let it bother me if I’m not connecting right at the beginning. I’m only irked if I don’t get to know them well enough before I switch POV’s, preferring to sink my teeth into a character before it switches. Again, this book makes an exception. I loved switching from character to character even right at the beginning. They were all so unique with clear, distinct voices and personalities that it was easy to go back and forth while enjoying myself every time the character changed. I loved the side characters as well, which is a huge plus. When side characters feel bland or boring it makes the world a little less polished and real. Aleena was fucking fantastic, I don’t think anyone who knows me would be surprised by my love for this character. Sassy older woman that curses like a sailor? Just, yes. Take all of my yes.
I’m a big fan of originality, (hence why it gets its own category in my scoring system) and since I read about 200 books a year when I hit something I haven’t seen done before I can’t help but get extra excited. Typically when I call a book unique I’m referring to something like a new magic system, a trope turned on its head, a new aspect of world building I hadn’t seen before, or maybe a particularly unusual POV. In this book I’m referring to all of the above, every aspect of this book was something new and different. The ‘monsters’ are original – my two favorites in this one are the Tallowmen, men made of wax and burning from within, they make for extremely surreal foes and we even get to see inside one of their heads as a POV for a short time. I loved it. There are also things known as the Crawling Ones, a huge group of worms that’s sentient and feeds on the dead, except when they eat the dead they also steal their memories, knowledge, and souls.
The writing in this was great, it flowed very nicely for me and kept me turning pages. I would say this is much more stylized than what I typically read, however, I absolutely adored it. Kind of like Bancroft, I just love the way this was done and thought it was gorgeous. The world building is absolutely incredible and worked hand in hand with the characters for me. Sometimes when I get hit in the head with too much world building and don’t get to know the characters enough I lose interest. This had a great deal of world building that helped you understand the characters so it was an even flow of new info but also character development.
I am so stoked I’m ending my year on a string of amazing books. I can’t recommend this one highly enough to those that like darker fantasy in an entirely unique world. This was like falling for fantasy all over again.
- multi pov
- non human pov
- original monsters/races
- darker fantasy
- female pov
- stylized prose
- genre mashups
- Plot: 14/15
- Characters: 14/15
- World Building: 15/15
- Writing: 14/15
- Pacing: 13/15
- Originality: 15/15
- Personal Enjoyment: 10/10