This review originally appeared at Fantasy-Faction.com.
If you read the Harry Potter series and thought, “This is a pleasant little story and all, but I just wish everyone at Hogwarts was a blood-thirsty sociopath and the instructors stopped wasting everyone’s time with all these pointless classes and just taught the students how to f— and kill one another.” Then I’ve got two things to say:
Number one, you should probably see a mental health specialist.
Number two, you’re going to love Jay Kristoff’s Nevernight.
Nevernight is the first book in a new trilogy that combines the Hogwarts-style school setting of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books; the Venetian-style city, colorful profanity and quick-witted banter of Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards; and the bloody, unflinching spectre of death that make Joe Abercrombie and Mark Lawrence’s novels so captivating.
From the opening sentence, when the unnamed narrator informs us that, “people often shit themselves when they die,” Nevernight is bold and unflinching. Even as Kristoff’s prose brings beauty to his sun-burnt world, his characters’ language is shockingly profane. Teenagers are killed by their instructors, often in gruesome, gore-filled ways. There are unapologetically graphic sex scenes. Any reader who sees a teenage protagonist and believes Nevernight will be a young adult book will be in for a rude surprise.
Of course, for readers who brave these murky waters, it’s a hell of a well-told story.
In a city built on the bones of a dead god, where three suns result in almost perpetual daylight, Mia Corvere is the daughter of an executed traitor. When her mother and brother are arrested, she flees. Alone and frightened, she finds a friend in the city’s darkest shadow and names him Mister Kindly.
Now in her teenage years, Mia knows she needs training to avenge her family and bring down the powerful men who ruined her life. To gain those skills, she goes to the Red Church, where she hopes to become a Blade of the Lady of Blessed Murder. But in a school full of killers, failure means death, and Mia can’t be certain whether the skills she develops are worth the humanity she’s losing along the way.
Mia is the cornerstone of the story, and immediately proves to be a compelling character. Introduced through flashbacks to her childhood in between scenes in which she makes her way to the Red Church, she is someone whose innocence has long since been stripped away. Even before she arrives at the church, Mia has established her credentials as a full-blooded murderess. As one of the opening paragraphs says, “… if the unpleasant realities of bloodshed turn your insides to water, be advised now that the pages in your hands speak to a girl who was to murder as maestros are to music. Who did to happy ever afters what a sawblade does to skin.”
Her constant companion, Mister Kindly, takes the form of a cat and feeds off her fear, allowing Mia to exhibit a form of bravery in the face of her many challenges. For the most part, the not-cat seems completely devoted to Mia, but there are a few moments when its façade slips, and it’s impossible to entirely forget that this creature relies as much on Mia’s fears for sustenance as Mia needs Mister Kindly to keep her nightmares at bay.
Mia’s classmates include Tric, her love interest; Jessamine, whose father died in the rebellion Mia’s father helped lead and would like nothing more than to see Mia killed; Hush, a pale young man who doesn’t speak, largely because all his teeth have been removed; and Ashlinn, a talented thief who becomes the closest thing Mia has to a friend within the Red Church’s walls.
All the students are instructed in three specialties – weapons, poison and seduction – and the instructors demonstrate little if any regard for their charges’ lives. Throughout the book, the lessons are interspersed with impromptu tests that place all the students’ lives in danger. With each challenge, the students’ numbers dwindle, and to make things worse, someone is killing off members of the class. As if that isn’t enough to build distrust amongst the students, only four will be selected to become Blades.
Kristoff keeps the story interesting throughout, as Mia makes her way to the Red Church, then meets the colorful cast of characters who inhabit the school. No one can be entirely trusted, and even as Mia finds herself feeling compassion toward some of her classmates, the perpetual competition and the inherent cruelty of their business makes it impossible for anyone to truly become friends.
Even as the students develop their skills, becoming stronger, smarter and tougher, Mia finds herself wondering just how much of her humanity she is giving away in return for the tools she needs to avenge her family.
Throughout the book, Kristoff includes footnotes that offer details about historical events, objects and people mentioned within the story. They are extraneous to the story, so readers who don’t enjoy them can simply skip over them without missing too much, but I found them charming and often humorous, helping to flesh out a world that we as readers are just beginning to understand.
At the risk of comparing Nevernight to too many fantasy bestsellers, Kristoff’s writing style reminds me of Patrick Rothfuss, from the variety of names used to introduce Mia in the epilogue – Pale Daughter, Kingmaker, and Crow – to the fluid, lyrical quality to the prose and the whip-smart dialogue that keeps the story moving forward. Kristoff previously wrote The Lotus War, a Japanese steampunk series, and co-authored The Illuminae Files alongside Amie Kaufman. Even having earned the title of “New York Times bestseller,” this is the book that should make him a household name in fantasy circles, right alongside Abercrombie, Lawrence, Lynch and Rothfuss.
The fantasy genre has seen plenty of novels about assassins through the years, but Nevernight may set a whole new standard for this well-populated subgenre.