I sure do have a bunch books featuring orphaned boys with spunky attitudes this round, lol. That’s okay, though! I don’t mind that trope as long as it doesn’t become cartoony, and I didn’t feel like our MC strayed from character to cartoon in this one so I was all good to go!
This is set on a kind of dying world, sort of — a cursed world is probably a better term. It’s been dark for hundreds of years and once again, there are ghostly specters that bring havoc to the people of the world. I’ve had a lot of that theme this round of SPFBO as well. However, these specters/wraiths are way more violent than the last book I just read, and they attack everyone indiscriminately, not just older people. The strange thing is, Nathanial can see them. No one else can, and no one knows why he’s special, but it definitely gives him a leg up in this battle since when most people get in a fight with them, they are just blindly swinging hoping they hit something.
Nathaniel is also an orphan, he barely remembers his parents and he’s just been kind wandering around, sleeping in various spots on the streets, stealing, drinking, and living a pretty depressing life. He even admits he has no real desire to keep going and doesn’t really fear dying. A sad place to be at so young an age, but it’s been a rough life. He’s had a few mentor figures come and go from his life, but they always end up leaving him and so he’s built thick walls to keep people out, and isn’t looking for a new mentor/father figure.
Then he runs into this knight of Auyn, Auric, a disgraced loser of knight that no one takes seriously. Not only is he the butt end of the joke of his order, but he’s also lost his wife and son. He’s a dejected person as well, and these two dejected souls become intertwined as the plot goes on. There are several other side characters that come into play later, a runaway prince and a squire who befriends Nathaniel, but it’s a lot to try and go over in a review.
So, there were a lot of things I liked about this book and some things that just didn’t work for me. I did like the characters, mostly. There were a few instances where character motivation didn’t totally work for me, there was a lot of insta-trust and insta-friendship– hi, I just met you, let me tell you my deepest secret that could put me at great peril, I’m going to tell you it’s that important just to gain your trust within the same day or two of meeting you. It didn’t necessarily make sense because there was no burning reason for this trust to be there. Like, she didn’t need him to trust her to go on a mission or quickly get out of danger or something like that.
There was also a weird implication about the origins of Nathaniel and the loss of Auric’s son. It’s heavily implied that Auric’s son isn’t dead, he’s referred to as “missing” not dead. Auric, upon meeting Nathaniel, thinks he looks strikingly similar to his son, like a lot like his lost son Emmett. For reasons I can’t understand, this is never probed up front. Speaking as a parent, if someone around my lost son’s age shows up, looks like my son, I’m going to ask some questions. Auric just lets it go and just says, nah, couldn’t be. He’s too angry and bitter, my son wasn’t angry and bitter. Like my goodly dude. He’s been on the streets. Character motivation just didn’t always gel with me. These are the two biggest instances, and honestly for the most part I liked the characters and their interactions, but there were a few things that didn’t work.
I did like a lot of the ideas and concepts of the world building, the fork-tongued crows that go between worlds, the wraiths, the fact that eating wraiths giving you special abilities, the creepy Hands of the Dark which were little kids who work for this twisted organization called the Kyrne. The Kyrne and their shenanigans was a pretty dark aspect of the book, honestly. They kidnap kids and forces them to eat wraith dust turning them into these possessed like half-humans. I also loved the interlude chapters with the Goddess of Time, that was an otherworldly surreal kind of interlude chapters that I really liked. There were these octopus/worm/human hybrid things that feed off the dead, and one of my favorite aspects of the book is Cassidy’s protective nature of… nature, lol. She’s protective of these weird creatures saying they’re rare and harmless, feeding off the dead not killing people. There were genuinely a lot of super neat ideas that worked well for me.
The one thing that didn’t, though, was a big part of the world building and it was the fact that the world has been dark for hundreds of years and I didn’t see a big enough impact on the day-to-day lives. There’s a curse and there’s been no sunlight for generations, it’s been described as a midnight sky, a starless sky at that. It’s acknowledged in certain passages that the plants are twisted and gnarled due to lack of sunlight, acknowledging a world of darkness would have effects on the flora of the world… but then also tells me in other passages about forests, pine trees, leaf litter all over the place, and other references to what seems to be a flourishing flora life. It really can’t be both without some kind of solution. It’s here I felt some really neat world building was maybe missed out on. Some kind of magical replacement for the sun to grow the food, or a world of mushrooms, a world where it’s very difficult to see without special tools or spells and explore what those are etc. A world with no sun would have incredibly drastic effects on everything, and I just did not feel that was actually the case here.
The tone and the writing through this I thought was pretty good. Both the narrative prose and dialogue felt smooth and natural, scene transition made sense, pacing was mostly steady. I really don’t have many quibbles about the writing. I would say the book is a touch long at around 550 pages, and so perhaps some “fat” could be trimmed to speed it up a bit, but overall I felt that was a more solid aspect of the book.
I was torn on this book, I did make it to the end. I was enjoying it enough to finish despite not thinking it would reach my top 6 for a semifinal spot. This and a couple others you could say tie for “7th”, there were a lot of books that I had similar feelings on. It is ultimately a cut, though, unfortunately. I do recommend people try it out if it sounds good to them, there’s a lot to like and you may not be bothered at all by the things that bothered me. I’m an ecologist at heart and it bleeds through to what I read, and y’all may not give two fucks there shouldn’t be trees, lolol.