Critique Summary: *Claps hands in delight* OMG, this book is so fun (and bloody)!! Go read it.
Destined to destroy empires, Mia Corvere is only ten years old when she is given her first lesson in death.
Six years later, the child raised in shadows takes her first steps towards keeping the promise she made on the day she lost everything.
But the chance to strike against such powerful enemies will be fleeting, so if she wants to have her revenge, Mia must become a weapon without equal. She must prove herself against the deadliest of friends and enemies, and survive the tutelage of murderers, liars and daemons at the heart of a murder cult.
The Red Church is no ordinary school, but Mia is no ordinary student. The shadows love her. And they drink her fear.
I knew very little about Nevernight before I started reading, except that it was by Jay Kristoff, one-half of the Illuminae writing team, and thus likely to be *awesome*. And I wasn’t wrong. I haven’t had so much fun with a book since Gemina. But I kind of presumed that, like the Illuminae Files, Nevernight would be YA, even though it’s shelved in the adult fantasy section at my local book shop. The first chapter, which splices between a rather juicy account of Mia committing her first murder and paying a ‘sweetboy’ to relieve her of her virginity, soon set me straight: we sail upon the good ship Hypatia no more, my friends.
I only point this out because sex and violence aren’t everybody’s bag, and Nevernight delivers Game-of-Thrones levels of both. Indeed, Kristoff shares George R. R. Martin’s penchant for bumping off lovable characters and cranks up the bloodshed to eleven. If you’re squeamish or prudish, consider yourself warned.
That said, Nevernight is, at its heart, a coming-of-age story, with sixteen-year-old Mia trying to figure out what kind of assassin she’s going to be. In the beginning, all she wants is to avenge her family, Arya Stark style, but as she progresses through her training and gains mastery over the shadows, she realises that graduating a fully-fledged Blade will cost her dearly, and the more power she gains, the less human she’ll become. I loved that, despite learning how to hack each other to pieces, the Acolytes in the Red Church are also just regular teenagers with regular teenage issues and that they’re negotiating complex friendships and relationships and struggling to keep their hormones in check in this ridiculously deadly environment. The juxtaposition between the Acolytes acting like boarding school students—teasing and trash talking each other over meals, sneaking into each other’s rooms after lights out, competing over grades—and the violence they inflict keeps the narrative from becoming too heavy. Kristoff continually lures his reader into a false sense of security with the Acolytes’ antics (at times the Red Church has a very Hogwarts vibe), only to shock us with the grisly murder of a character we were just beginning to warm to, or a good ol’ fashioned large-scale massacre. But the coming-of-age element also gives the story a sense of reality and emotional depth.
Side note: how great is this quote?
Mia slung herself into the carnage. Blades drawn. Teeth bared. Moving among blinded and stumbling men like a serpent through water. Steel flashing, soldiers falling, crying out and swinging their cudgels at the blur in their midst; a bloodstained smudge moving through the smoke, wicked-sharp blades flashing. A few thought her some thing from the abyss, some a demonic servant of Niah set on their trail. Others mistook her for a horror from the Whisperwastes, a monstrosity spat into being by twisted magiks. But as she wove and swayed among them, blades whistling, breath hissing, the swiftest among them realised that she wasn’t a daemon. Not a horror. But a girl. Just a girl. And that thought terrified them more than any daemon or horror they could name.
Nevernight has the potential to be a seriously grim read and, in places, it gets very dark, but Kristoff has a wicked sense of humour. While he knows when to hold back and play it straight and includes some really poignant moments, his narrator has such a droll style and keen wit that I found myself snorting with laughter, same as I did in Illuminae and Gemina. I love this approach! It’s as though Kristoff is reminding his reader that, yup, this is all make-believe and it’s supposed to be fun. The narrative’s playfulness also gives the impression that Kristoff had an absolute ball writing this story, and that somehow makes it more enjoyable. It filled me with that same sense of delight and wonder I got from reading authors like Roald Dahl and series like Harry Potter as a kid (but with loads more stabby bits). Kristoff has clearly put a hell of a lot of work into creating the Nevernight world, but he doesn’t fall into the trap of demanding that his reader take that world too seriously (I have the attention span of a goldfish, so he gets bonus points for condensing tomes-worth of snooze-inducing exposition into a few well-placed and wickedly funny footnotes, even if it does feel a little like cheating). Complexities of religion and history aside, there are also carnivorous bookworms, snooty horses, cheapskate innkeepers and wisecracking shadows (although, actually the shadows are pretty creepy).
In the end, the thing that really won me over about Nevernight is that it’s just so darn entertaining: a good story, well told. Like Illuminae, the plot isn’t earth-shatteringly original: it’s an assassin origin story, plain and simple. But every element is bang on and perfectly balanced. There’s action, adventure, bloodshed, steamy bits, all manner of hijinks, lashings of nail-biting tension, bits that will make you cry, others that will make you laugh and others still that’ll give you a proper shock. It’s a real feast for the feels. I’m counting the sleeps until book two!
Thanks to Grammarly for picking up twenty-one critical issues and ten advanced issues in my draft of this review. If, like me, you have trouble with typos, do give Grammarly a go!
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