This was another pleasant surprise to start the year with! I went into this expecting a bog-standard YA novel, but time and again the author impressed me by subverting tropes in unexpected ways. If you don’t want to read this entire review, I’ll summarize it here: I had a wonderful time reading this, and stayed up late for the first time in many, many books to finish reading it. I highly recommend this one.
What is this book about? In the world of this book, death has been broken. When people die, they automatically rise from the dead if they do not receive the proper last rites/funeral. The world was nearly destroyed in an undead apocalypse generations ago, but now the world is recovering. The protagonist Artemisia is a nun who’s sole job is to give people those last rites, a job she adores because it’s boring and uneventful after her traumatic childhood. But destiny calls! To prevent a second apocalypse from wiping out the remnants of humanity, she must make a deal with an ancient revenant, grow past her trauma by making friends, and finally travel outside of her comfort zone by leaving her boring old life behind.
If this concept sounds a little like Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series… well, you’re not wrong. But the good news is that if you liked the Old Kingdom books then you’ll probably like this. I certainly liked those, and I liked this as well.
Spoilers Below! You’ve been warned. Also, all reviews are subjective. My opinions are my own. I’m writing this review as an author critiquing another author’s book, in an attempt to improve my own writing.
To put this review/study in proper context, you must know my starting point.
Like I said above, I’m a fan of the Old Kingdom books. They were influential upon my likes and dislikes in fantasy books I’ve read since I read them years ago. Because I was influenced positively by those, I was naturally inclined to like this. Caveat Emptor, this review is written from a biased perspective.
WHAT IS THE TARGET AUDIENCE?
- YA, with adult overlap
- Female Protagonist, who is willing to fight but would prefer to talk things out
- A Neurodivergent Protagonist (arguably)
- A tale of trauma, and the healing of that trauma
- Strong Platonic friendships, between women mainly but also between men and women
- High fantasy, epic fantasy
- Dark, but not Grimdark
- Standalone, but it will be part of a duology
- Spooky ghost/undead apocalypse
READER’S EMOTIONAL RESPONSE/ FUN FACTOR
I am mostly in this book’s target audience. As a result, I enjoyed this book a good deal. Was this book perfect in a fundamentals of the ‘craft of storytelling’ perspective? No. I would have enjoyed it if the author’s prose was a little more flowery. But despite that, I had a great time reading this. My personal experience was very positive.
(My baseline is 3 out of 5 stars. That’s what I try to give most books.)
Overall, I give the story’s Emotional Resonance: (5/5 Stars)
(5 Stars= Perfect, 4=Great, 3=Good/Average, 2=Fun but Flawed, 1=Not Recommended)
- ‘Sabriel’ by Garth Nix (Female necromancer protagonist seeking to prevent an undead apocalypse, with a snarky ‘evil’ sidekick)
- ‘Red Sister’ Book Review (Combat nuns with magic)
- ‘Penric’s Demon’ by Lois McMaster Bujold (A priest who has a demon in his brain)
CONCEPT AND EXECUTION
To restate what I said above, this book’s concept is: In the world of this book, death has been broken. When people die, they automatically rise from the dead if they do not receive the proper last rights/funeral. The world was nearly destroyed in an undead apocalypse generations ago, but now the world is recovering. The protagonist Artemisia is a nun who’s sole job is to give people those last rights, a job she adores because it’s boring and uneventful after her traumatic childhood. But destiny calls! To prevent a second apocalypse from wiping out the remnants of humanity, she must make a deal with an ancient revenant, grow past her trauma by making friends, and finally travel outside of her comfort zone by leaving her boring old life behind.
This is a good concept.
How was the execution? I felt it was extremely well executed. Oftentimes when I read a book, the scope of the author’s vision for the book outstrips their ability to flesh it out. Not here. The author knew exact scope of the story she wanted to tell, and she told it. She kept her plot in control, keeping it to a lean 400pages, and gave her characters fulfilling and compelling character arcs. This book worked. I’m incredibly impressed.
CHARACTERS AND CHARACTERIZATION:
This is where the book is at it’s best. The protagonist Artemisia was kept in a shed with a goat as a child, and never really recovered from this mistreatment by her parents. Still a child, she became possessed by an destructive fire spirit and went on a destructive rampage, traumatizing her further. She was saved from the possession and sent to a nunnery, where she could use her new-found spirit magic to give people funerals. But she never recovered emotionally from her childhood abuse. Artemisia’s so used to her lot in life being physical pain, loneliness and emotional suffering, that she neglects her personal health and safety.
Near the beginning of the novel she becomes possessed by an parasite revenant. Her neglect of herself is so extreme that this supposedly ‘evil’ revenant has to step in and tell her to eat, sleep and take care of herself. I liked this dynamic between Artemisia and the revenant: it humanized the inhuman ghost, making him seem less evil. It also made Artemisia seem helpless when she’s removed from the care of her nunnery, because she no longer has her sisters to look after her.
Artemisia can be interpreted as being coded neurodivergent. She is arguably the most introverted/anti-charismatic character I’ve ever read before. She has trouble reading other people’s expressions, and other people have trouble interpreting her expressions. Other people bully/make fun of her for being ‘weird.’ She’s perfectly happy being a nun who gives funerals all day long, because the corpses don’t make fun of her. But I don’t feel comfortable saying she is neurodivergent because it’s never completely cleared up that her ‘weird’ behaviors began before or after she became possessed by the destructive fire spirit when she was a child. Her extreme introversion might be a result of spiritual damage caused by being haunted at a young age, or it might be because she’s autistic. No way to tell given what we’re told, but I’m inclined to think she’s neurodivergent.
I enjoyed her friendship with the revenant. Early in the book she’s forced to make a ‘deal with the devil’ with a powerful revenant to save her nunnery. The revenant gets to be a parasite in her brain (a la Desdemona is the ‘Penric and Desdemona’ books), and in return the revenant helps Artemisia save people’s lives. But the revenant is always a threat: at any moment, it’s will can overpower hers and take control of her body.
Early on the reader is disinclined from trusting the revenant, as he seems cruel. But as he proves more and more helpful, the reader grows to realize that the revenant is only malicious because it was unwillingly enslaved by Artemisia’s church, and held captive in a sensory-deprivation-chamber-like confines of it’s reliquary… similar to how Artemisia was held captive in a shed as a child. Even though Artemisia is (possibly) neurodivergent, she is a deeply empathetic person. It’s her empathy which allows her to bond with the revenant, and help redeem it.
The side characters are good- antagonists included. All of them have clear characterization and character arcs. While not all of them were the deepest of characters… that’s fine. They’re side characters, and the author did a good job displaying their characters so I was able to predict how they would act in the climax of the book even though they were only minor characters. That’s good characterization skill, and good foreshadowing.
Finally, I very much so enjoyed the fact that there was no shoehorned in love story, as happens too often in YA stories. This book is about a celibate nun; it’s appropriate that it lacks a love story.
PACING AND STRUCTURE
I’ll be analyzing this story using ‘The Heroine’s Journey’ Storytelling format.
- The Descent
- Broken Family
- Artemisia is the odd one out at the nunnery. She’s comfortable, but unhappy.
- The Confessor interviews her, trying to get her to leave her shell and go become a Hero in the big city. She turns him down.
- Attack of the Ghostly Legion
- Climaxes when Artemisia and the revenant team up.
- Ignored Pleas/Hollow Promises
- After saving people’s lives using the revenant, she’s pariah-ed by her found family in the nunnery.
- Involuntary Abdication of Power
- The Confessor returns, and takes the protagonist captive.
- Broken Family
- The Search
- Social Isolation and Danger
- She escapes the Confessor and steals the confessor’s horse.
- Runs for her life through the wilds.
- Climaxes when she saves the big city from an undead army, then has to hide from the confessor again.
- The protagonist disguises herself, and hides amongst the poor refugees, begging for food, trying to stay out of sight.
- She moves to a nunnery in the big city, still disguised, where she does her best to stay out of sight of the church.
- Creating a New Family
- She makes friends- new and old- while disguised.
- Visiting the Underworld, Together
- Fleeing for her life, she goes hide in the city’s crypts.
- Climaxes in the crypts when the protagonist touches an ancient alter, almost killing her revenant.
- Then there’s a fight against the Confessor- and Artemisia spares him.
- She and the revenant get in a fight, and she’s nearly taken over by him. But she comforts him, shows him empathy, talking him down from the edge of madness.
- They exit the crypts/sewers.
- Social Isolation and Danger
- The Ascent
- Finding What You’re Looking For and Negotiating with the Enemy
- The protagonist+revenant read the confessor’s diary, and learn he’s not the actual bad guy. His goal is to prevent the oncoming apocalypse.
- They befriend the confessor, and go to confront the true villain.
- The Real Adventure is The Friends You Made Along the Way
- Artemisia+the confessor fail to defeat the antagonist. The confessor is possessed by an enemy revenant, and Artemisia is taken captive.
- To escape captivity, Artemisia has to rely on the friends she made earlier in the story, trusting them to save her. They do.
- Artemisia trusts the revenant fully for the first time, freeing him to control her body. The revenant uses this freedom to defeat the enemy revenant, saving the day. In return, Artemisia saves the hero revenant when she could otherwise let him die. Artemisia becomes a Hero(ine).
- Finding What You’re Looking For and Negotiating with the Enemy
- The Confessor is freed from being possessed, and has completed his character arc. He is now a humble person, where hew as proud at the beginning of the book.
This is a GREAT example of a Heroine’s Journey story. It’s not every day that I see a Heroine’s Journey, but I enjoy them. I like Heroine’s Journey stories, because they usually focus more on characterization and emotion, and less on violence.
Pacing wise, I have no complaints. It was fast when it needed to be fast, and slow when it needed to be slow. I read this in a single day… so, yeah. I won’t call it a page-turner, but it was compelling.
PLOT, STAKES AND TENSION
I enjoyed the plot. It was a tightly structured story.
The stakes were strong. Because the author started slow, with everyday life at the nunnery, we understand the ‘on the ground level’ of what will be lost if the heroes fail to stop the apocalypse. People have everyday lives; they have friends; they have loves, and children. If the protagonist fails to stop the revenants, everyday life will end. That’s good stakes (at least for me).
The book’s tension felt authentic. In particular, I liked the tension of the protagonist and the revenant. Due to her prior experience being controlled by an evil spirit, Artemisia REFUSES to be controlled again. The threat of her losing control to the revenant felt authentic to me.
AUTHORIAL VOICE (TONE, PROSE AND THEME)
The author’s prose was acceptable, but given the pseudo-gothic setting, I would have enjoyed a more lush writing style by the author.
Given the theme of death/undeath, you’d expect the book to be super dark… but it wasn’t. Don’t get me wrong, people die, but this book isn’t Grimdark by any means. It was serious, but not depressing.
The book had themes of death, control, recovering from trauma and captivity. I felt they were well integrated and well-intertwined.
SETTING, WORLDBUILDING AND ORIGINALITY
I enjoyed the setting/worldbuilding. It bares more than a passing resemblance to the ‘Old Kingdom’ setting, but where ‘Old Kingdom’ feels more traditionally fantasy, this is more gothic and faux-Christian. The monsters in this were all ghosts. The most powerful of ghosts, called ‘revenants,’ reminded me of Fallen Angels in terms of description and temperament. I wish the author leaned into the whole faux-Christian aspect of the setting a little more, but that’s just me.
I enjoyed the audiobook. It’s a solid (B).
- Keep the scale of your story under control. Don’t let the plot of your book scale out of hand. Focus on character arcs.
I read this in January, but even so I’m pretty sure this will be on my ‘best of the year’ list. Give it a try if you want to read it.
Previous books by the author/in the series I’ve reviewed:
Did you like this critique/review? Here are some more:
- Studying ‘The Hallowed Hunt’ by Lois McMaster Bujold
- A Review of ‘Blood of the Chosen’ by Django Wexler
- A Critique of ‘Cordelia’s Honor’ by Lois McMaster Bujold
- A Study of ‘Dragon Mage’ by M. L. Spencer
- A Critique of ‘Empire of the Vampire’ by Jay Kristoff
- A Review of ‘Red Rising’ by Pierce Brown