Every time I pick up and start a new epic fantasy novel/series, it just feels like coming home. I have really spread my “reading wings” over the past years and found so many books that I have loved from so many different genres, truly. But my first love, my reader origin story, was always fantasy and it’s still my comfort reading zone. Anyways, this series really needs no intro, honestly. It’s super popular and well-known already, so my review(s) likely won’t add anything new to the table. But I am so excited that I am finally picking up these books (especially after loving the co-written Illuminae Files trilogy last year – dang Kristoff is prolific and consistently phenomenal). Bring on the binge read – and buckle up for a long post!
The Nevernight Chronicle by Jay Kristoff
“Never flinch. Never fear. And never, ever forget.”
So, as a quick summary to start, I’m going to just copy and paste the little one-liner that starts the inside flap blurb. It basically sums up the entire book and, honestly, I just like the way its worded: “In a land where three suns almost never set, a fledgling killer joins a school of assassins, seeking vengeance against the powers who destroyed her family.” There you have it.
Right, so 10-year-old Mia Corvere saw her father killed, her mother and younger brother hauled away to be imprisoned for like, the rest of forever, and herself stolen away to be silently and secretly murdered. But instead of dying, Mia was found by the shadows (a little cat shadow that she named Mister Kindly, to be more specific…and let’s just take a moment to honor that nomenclature for a murderous, fear-eating shadow being), escaped, and managed to get taken under the wing of a sort of pre-assassin-in-training-trainer. When we really start taking our journey with her, she is off to find this secret school of assassins, haunted by some terrible memories of a discovery she made about her mother’s fate when she was 14, and dead set on doing anything and everything necessary to avenge her family. This, and some other plot-related parts of the novel, are honestly pretty typical of a YA/NA fantasy series. A young female protagonist fighting for something “bigger” than herself (though in this case, I do love that it’s so personal, her scruples are kinda there/not there as it serves her, and it’s not like a big “chosen one/save the world” situation), the “school” aspect, and a very intense hierarchical religious system and schism. Now, that being said, they’re sort of clichés for a reason. It’s a great staring point for a hero/story and, really, looking at Mia’s age, it does make sense that she would need legit training before taking down all these well-guarded and powerful men that she’s pledged herself against. So while they’re things I’ve seen before, they’re a part of the genre I love and they were very well written, developed and executed (pun kinda intended) so it really worked for me.
Other notes: Wow, can Kristoff pace a novel. I felt like I couldn’t stop reading and at the same time never felt rushed. It was perfect. Also, I loved some of the aspects that added originality to this novel. First, the use of shadows/dark and the kind of “shadow magic” Mia is gifted with. And I said she wasn’t like a typical “chosen one,” even though she’s one of the only people with this particular gift, because I thought it was really cool that the one other person she meets with this power doesn’t seem interested in explaining anything or mentoring her in it and (mini, baby spoiler), turns out to not really be helpful anyways, once she does have greater access to him. And the ending makes it clear that she wants to know more and will work to find out, but, I don’t know, I enjoyed that there wasn’t more knowledge about it from any real source. Also, in addition to the obvious fighting and poisoning skills that the assassin students learned in their “school” experience, I enjoyed some of the other foci, like theft/pick-pocketing and seduction/secret-gathering. Those were kind of out of the box as far as assassin work, but totally make sense. Plus, the creepy but totally cool facial reworking to make them less noticeable was a nice touch. And last, possibly greatest: the plot twists! Oh goodness! When reading makes me gasp out loud, that’s a win. I loved it all, even the one that kinda broke my heart a little (though I should have expected it, really, considering the author bio literally says he doesn’t believe in happy endings).
Last comments: this was bloody and bloodthirsty with no holds barred death, basically from everyone towards everyone else. The snark was real, the dialogue was smart, the narrator voice was spot on (and let me just take this moment to share that the footnotes were all spectacular; hilarious in a dark, sarcastic way that I straight loved), Mia is vicious in the best way (but had some minimal softer moments that I appreciated), and I am about to dive into book two immediately, the second I finish writing this final sentence…
“‘Nothing is where you start. Own nothing. Know nothing. Be nothing.’ / ‘Why would I want to do that?’ / […] / His smile made her smile in return. / ‘Because then you can do anything.’”
And on to book two of this bloody, thrilling trilogy! The book picks up right after the last one. Mia is a full-fledged Blade and, even though everyone in the Red Church leadership hates her, they can’t change that. So, she’s well into her murdering-on-their-behalf life path when she finds out some truly shocking news (from a sort of expected, but definitely still enemy, source: Ashlinn) and realizes that maybe this murderous group of fanatics is not quite as “on the up and up” as she’d first thought. In a giant pivot, Mia secretly (with assistance from good old Mercurio) sets off on (another?) low-odds-of-success plan to avenge her parents: getting herself sold into slavery as a gladiatii so she can enter the biggest fight-to-the-death-for-public-entertainment event in the Republic and get a close up shot at an unarmed Scaeva and Duomo when they crown her winner.
Well, I think I can confidently say that the snark and sarcasm of our narrator, and really many of the characters themselves (I’m looking at you Master Kindly and Eclipse), have thrived in this second installation. In fact, I think it really rubbed off on me as a reader, because that synopsis I just wrote was full of it. Anyways, that was one of my favorite parts of the first books and it remains so after finishing the second. I love some good, smart snark and I’ve rarely read better. In addition, the pacing and sex and brutality all stayed solid, if not even bigger/better, in this second book.
As far as the plot, there was just something about this updated storyline, the switch from assassin school to gladiator training, that just wasn’t quite as on point for me as the first was. I think it’s personal tough. I’d just rather read about assassins. It’s sneakier bloodshed and death than spectator fights are, which just appeals to me more as a reader. However, that doesn’t mean I wasn’t just as invested in Mia and her journey. Trust me, my eyes were glued to the pages for the entirety of the book. And there were some parts of it, especially the parallel progressions within her character and the plot, that I loved. For Mia, as she steps outside into the “real” world, she starts to learn that her view of life is super skewed: from her high-born early life to her secluded years with just Mercurio to her indoctrination by the Red Church…she’s really been sheltered from the actual state of the Republic. So, her new life as a gladiatii, and the friends she makes among them, allow an opening in herself and the plot. Yes, she is still single-sightedly hell bent on avenging her parents, but she’s also realizing that like, life in her country is really terrible for a lot of people and the slave situation is (DUHHHH) horrific and awful. Her widening worldview and experiences, plus the (finally) discovery that her parents were just people, and therefore flawed (and not the perfect martyrs she’d built them up to be in memory) were growth that I was super glad for.
A few more notes. First: yet again, the brutality is REAL. No holding back or pulling punches on the violence and death. I was here for it. There was one “betrayal that wasn’t” as the end (no spoilers, as best I can) that I was really happy for but also…kinda…disappointed by. I hated and loved the ruthlessness of what I thought happened, so I’m not actually mad about the direction it went, but also would have been fine if it really happened. Anyways, on to a less vague comment: the “romance.” Yo, I’m into the “I am completely bi but mostly didn’t realize it til I kissed a girl” rep. That is something I totally identify with and I love the way that’s going in this story. Some cringe-y vocabulary in the sex scenes themselves, but I think we all have individual preferences there, so I’m not mad at it. And last: the reveals! Some I saw coming and some were a surprise, but they are moved the plot along nicely and set up for I’m hoping will be a spectacular finale.
Overall, I was super pleased with this second book! This was no “bridge between intro and closing” or placeholder second book. It stands on its own as far as plot development within it and in the greater context, allows growth for Mia, deepens the mysteries around what being a darkin means, and introduces some awesome new characters (getting to know Mercurio and Eclipse more, as well as meeting Leona and Arkades and Sid and ‘Singer and all the gladiatii was fantastic). I can’t wait to see how it wraps up (actually, I’ve already started book three)!
“A child of murdered parents and a failed rebellion, she’d still walked in the boots of scholars and warriors, queens and conquerors.”
“Still, never let the truth get in the way of a good yarn, gentlefriends.”
“There’s no softer pillow than a clear conscience.”
“This is not where I die. […] I’ve far too much killing to do.”
Ahhhhhh the finale – triumphant, dark, blood-spattered and not without its share of emotions (yes, I did shed tears a few times). Again, we pick up the story exactly (like, literally in the same minute) where the last one left off. Mia’s small-chances-of-success gladiatii plan has completely succeeded (well, at least as far as she knows). As a bonus surprise, she picked up her long-thought-dead brother, Jonnen, along the way. However, of course, not all was as it seemed…and Scaeva yet lives. So in the final chapter of Mia’s story, she sets off to finally, for real this time, kill Scaeva and along the way, end the traitorous Red Church, close out some family drama, settle a personal love triangle and, as a bonus, restore the balance of the gods, the night and day, the dark and light, the sun and moon, on a very un-asked-for, destiny-like, quest.
Oooof a lot happened in this final book! We set off thinking and planning one thing and are completed derailed and rerouted a number of times. It was nonstop action and I was really feeling that pacing in the wrap-up to this story. I love having to stay on my toes (or the edge of my seat) as the reader. I do have to say that the footnotes and snark were at the lowest in this volume. I mean, don’t get me wrong, they were definitely there, but as the story got more intense and serious and god-related, there seemed to be less space for that kind of vibe. However, the non-traditional approach Mia takes to being the “chosen one,” which has been refreshing from the start, stays strong. And that, that I really liked.
There was some character turnover in this last one too. I started pretty lukewarm on Jonnen (I can’t lie, young children in fantasy novels is just one of those things that really annoys me – they get in the way and/or are not developmentally appropriate and I just usually dislike them), but the way he was written honestly and centrally, but not overly much, turned out alright. And the role he ended up playing was a good one, as far as making sense and being fitting. I loved the addition of Cloud and the pirates (in opposition to my thing about kids in fantasy, I’m a huge sucker for a fantasy pirate). And the return of our favorite gladiatii from the last book was both an expected and warm homecoming. I also tend to be a sucker for a found family trope and these books really all have that in spades. We also got one surprise return character in a new form, which I loved and also was heart-broken over (and provided some of the most unique love/hate triangle situation I have ever read, murderer/murdered-dead-boy/Mia, and I was here for it). Seeing and getting to know Mercurio more/better was also a favorite part of mine. And oh goodness there were quite a few losses that got me. Some pretty big characters are brought down and some smaller ones that affected me a more than I would have expected. And overall, there was some great character growth, relationship development and connections made/flourished.
As far as the story itself, the mythology of the fallen god and the Crown of the Moon, how that was all connected to darkin, and the role(s) Mia and Jonnen and Scaeva all played, I thought it was well done. I can’t say that it was totally original, but there are fantasy tropes for a reason. And I did like the parallels between the suns/moons/day/night god-family situation and the way Mia’s own family situation played out. It was a cool way to create and recreate it all. And, worth mentioning again, I loved the way Mia approached her role – selfish until the end, focus on the people (the familia) that mattered to her, and single-mindedly so. It showed her heart so well, so strongly, so consistently and got us to the ending the way fate/destiny needed but still in a way that was through her own choices, and that is something rarely seen in this genre. Refreshing and, honestly, way more recognizable and empathize-able, for me. And the little post-denouement ending, kinda like an epilogue, made my heart smile (and one more plug for how cool, and a fantastically normalized handling of bisexuality, I thought Mia’s romantic relationship(s) were). Last small note that I didn’t want to forget to add: I loved all the nicknames and titles Mia picked up throughout this tale, from Pale Daughter to little Crow to Lady of Blades and so, so many more. They were such a great small detail.
Ahhhhhh now I have to sum it all up? All the reviewers were right – this was bloody, brutal, epic, snarky, fast-paced and totally engaging fantasy trilogy. Mia was a fantastic heroine and anti-heroine all combined into one person and her story and growth into herself and her full power and her full life was everything I had hoped for. Yet again, I was totally into Kristoff’s characters and world-building and plot unfolding and goodness this was the escapist reading I needed. So good, so entertaining, such a great adventure!
“Sometimes the past won’t just die. Sometimes you have to kill it.”
“And the more I live it, the more I realize ‘deserve’ has nothing to do with this life. Blessings and curses fall on the wicked and the just alike. Fair is a fairy tale. Nothing’s claimed by those who don’t want it, and nothing’s kept by those who won’t fight for it. So let’s fight. Fuck the gods. Fuck it all. Let’s take the world by the throat and make it give us what we want.”
“Love often rusted into hate when watered with scorn.”
“How easily a parent can make a triumph of their children, gentlefriends. And how easily they can make a ruin.”
“And some loyalties just don’t die quietly, no matter what the storybooks say.”
“A dizzying kiss. An endless kiss. A kiss full of sorrow and regret for things they might have been, a kiss of love and longing for all the things they’d had, a kiss of joy for all they were, right at that moment.”
“You never know what can break you until you’re falling apart.”
“…fear wasn’t ever a choice. To never fear was to never hope. Never love. Never live. To never fear the dark was to never smile as the dawn kissed your face. To never fear solitude was to never know the joy of a beauty in your arms. Part of having is the fear of losing. Part of creating is the fear of it breaking. Part of beginning is the fear of your ending. Fear is never a choice. Never a choice. But letting it rule you is.”