Review: Nevernight by Jay Kristoff

Nevernight by Jay Kristoff is the first in an epic new fantasy series from the New York Times bestselling author (Available August 9, 2016).

She looked the knife over, this way and that.

“Should I give it a name?”

“You could, I suppose. But what's the point?”

“It's this bit.” She touched the blade's tip. “The part you stick them with.”

“O, bravo. Mind you don't cut yourself on a wit that sharp.”

“All great blades have names. It's just how it's done.”

“Bollocks.” Mercurio took back the dagger, held it up between them. “Naming your blade is the sort of faff reserved for heroes, girl. Men who have songs sung about them, histories spun for them, brats named after them. It's the shadow road for you and me. And you dance it right, no one will ever know your name, let alone the pig-sticker in your belt.

”You'll be a rumor. A whisper. The thought that wakes the bastards of this world sweating in the nevernight. The last thing you will ever be in this world, girl, is someone's hero.“

Mercurio handed back the blade.

”But you will be a girl heroes fear.”

Mia Corvere is an assassin. 

By ten, her entire family has been either publicly executed or imprisoned for treason, leaving her the sole survivor. The kind of survivor who will risk life and limb—her own and any who cross her path—in order to achieve revenge. 

Tutored by a man called Mercurio, she leaves the city that has always been her home and travels to a far distant mountain where she will become an acolyte of Maw, also known as Niah, Goddess of Night, Our Lady of Blessed Murder. In the Red Church, she will be taught the fine art of assassination and become an instrument of holy death.

See also: Pick Your Poison—“The Red Church” Cocktail

Oh, and at this point, she's just sixteen. If Mia's anything, it's motivated.

Luckily, this determined girl also has a useful ace up her sleeve as she begins her harrowing training and journey to her ultimate goal: Mia is one of the “darkin,” a people gifted with control over shadows. 

Accompanied by a cat made of shadows called Mister Kindly, who helpfully devours her fear, we already know—thanks to an omnipotent narrator—that our murderous heroine is destined for downright legendary greatness.

She wasn't a pretty thing. O, the tales you've heard about the assassin who destroyed the Itreyan Republic no doubt described her beauty as otherworldly; all milk-white skin and slender curves and bow-shaped lips. And she was possessed of these qualities, true, but the composition seemed… a little off. “Milk-white” is just pretty talk for “pasty,” after all. “Slender” is a poet's way of saying “starved”.

Her skin was pale and her cheeks hollow, lending her a hungry, wasted look. Crow-black hair reached to her ribs, save for a self-inflicted and crooked fringe. Her lips and the flesh beneath her eyes seemed perpetually bruised, and her nose had been broken at least once.

If her face was a puzzle, most would put it back in the box, unfinished.

Moreover, she was short. Stick-thin. Barely enough arse for her britches to cling to. Not a beauty that lovers would die for, armies would march for, heroes might slay a god or daemon for. All in contrast to what you've been told by your poets, I'm sure. But she wasn't without her charm, gentlefriends. And all your poets are full of shit.

Nevernight is high fantasy of the most epic, brutal caliber. Jay Kristoff's capable, multi-faceted world-building and complex characters place it in the tier inhabited by George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, Patrick Rothfuss's Kingkiller Chronicles, and Scott Lynch's Gentlemen Bastards series. 

There are no singing fairies or gentle Jesus lions here: this story is nitty, gritty, and grim. Dismemberments and castrations are casually discussed as commonplace; there's hardly a moment of calm peace before it's shattered with blood and death; and you distrust just about everyone Mia meets. 

You'll find yourself practically vibrating with tension as you turn every page.

Kristoff admits he “doesn't believe in happy endings,” and he most certainly holds true to that credo here. Nevernight is not for the weak of stomach or heart.

Take a visual tour through Nevernight with our GIFnotes series!

For all of its harsh brutality, though, this is a work of beautiful lyricality and wry, gallows humor. Narrated by someone who “loved and truly knew” Mia as a girl, not just a legend, the plot frequently shifts from Mia's present journey to her past backstory. 

A plethora of footnotes offer interesting, informative, often macabre asides about historical events and cultural issues, as well as snarky commentary—just the sort of thing Sir Terry Pratchett would have written had he been more fond of crucifixions and state-sanctioned torture. 

The Itreyan Republic—Mia's homeland and the target of her revenge—is reminiscent of Ancient Rome, albeit a Rome built within the bones of a dead god. This is a place where triple suns ensure there is “nevernight,” and “truedark” comes only once every few years. It's a place of religious fanaticism, where any number of blasphemous acts can lead to your torture or death.

It seems only fitting, then, given her origin story, that Mia becomes a fanatic/devotee of a being considered the Itreyan devil: Our Lady of Blessed Murder. 

“Heed the words of your Shahiid. Know that everything you were prior to this moment is dead. That once you pledge yourself to the Maw, you are hers and hers alone.” A robed figure with a silver bowl stepped up beside the Reverend Mother, and she beckoned Mia. “Bring forth your tithe. The remnants of a killer, killed in turn and offered to Our Lady of Blessed Murder in this, the hour of your baptism.”

…The ritual was repeated, each acolyte bringing forth their tithes one by one. Some brought teeth, others eyes—the tall boy with the sledgehammer hands brought a rotting heart, wrapped in black velvet. Mia realized that there wasn't a single one of them who wasn't a murderer. That of all the rooms in the Republic there was probably none more dangerous than the one she stood in, right at that moment.*

(*Astonishingly, remarkably, impossibly incorrect.)

If you grew up with Harry Potter, as I did, and longed for another magical school to get lost in, then the Red Church is the answer to your dreams. Or perhaps your nightmares, given this is a much, much darker and far more violent sort of Hogwarts. 

It's the type of place that makes you believe in gods and devils, where rooms shift into deadly labyrinths, where a vast library holds literally lethal tomes, and where your own classmates and professors are more than happy to slit your throat or lop off one of your arms.

Plenty think higher learning can be killer, but in Mia's case that's a truly apt description.

Nevernight is a book that promises—and delivers—some seriously incredible, meaty goods. With its masterful world-building, fantastic characters, breathless action, terror, magic, and monsters galore, I dare you to be disappointed. If you're a fan of high fantasy, particularly dark high fantasy, this story is sure to quench your thirst. 

Who knows when—or even if, at this pace—the next installment of A Song of Ice and Fire is going to hit shelves? Until then, Jay Kristoff seems fully prepared to tide us over; I, for one, thank him most gratefully.

 

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Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.

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