Jay Kristoff is my new favorite author, and if you read the two books I’ve just read, he may just become yours too.
Nevernight is a brilliant, last-man-standing-type fantasy, that whilst having a hint of the Hunger Games, transcends it in a multitude of ways. Illuminae (co-written with Amie Kaufman) is more 2001 meets 28 Days Later, as a parasite infected army is directed by a maniacal computer to seek out and destroy survivors. Both novels are gripping and demand to be read late into the night.
Mia is the daughter of an important family, whose world is turned upside down when her father is executed for high treason. Her mother and brother are thrown into the city’s most notorious jail, and Mia, after escaping her captors, is left on the streets to fend for herself.
Nevernight is a fantasy novel told with two narrative strands, by an omniscient narrator. One strand delivers snapshots of Mia’s past, whilst the other details her life as an acolyte of the mysterious and murderous Red Church. We are told from the outset that this book details only the beginning of Mia’ story–the genesis of the world’s most notorious killer.
Throughout the book, the narrator uses footnotes to explain points further, or mostly to make jokes. Many authors apply this device but it often doesn’t work. Kristoff pulls it off, giving the impression that our historian is both highly intelligent and contemptuous of human folly.
The bulk of the novel is set inside the hidden temple of the Red Church, a secretive order of religious killers. Here, new acolytes train to become full-fledged members of the order through a series of trials. Only four will survive. Only four will become members of the most feared order of assassins in the world.
Whilst the acolytes are in direct competition, they are rarely pitted directly against one another. Outright murder of another apprentice is forbidden, but the price of failing in a trial is high. Political maneuverings and subtle sabotage can see a trialist meet a sticky end.
What sets the novel apart is the strength of the characterization. On the face of it, it’s not terribly groundbreaking. Mia is hard as nails but soft at heart. She inevitably falls for a charming young man, who’s somewhat misunderstood, considering he’s a brutal killer.
Mia’s main rival channels Draco Malfoy, and you kind of know that her enemies are going to almost win (but won’t quite) by the time we reach the end. Nevertheless, I loved the interplay between the characters. The rivalries, the alliances, the betrayals. Because, inevitably, there are twists. Not everybody is who they seem to be.
Wrapped around this kernel are a couple of more interesting developments, one plot-driven, the other character-based. Beyond the walls of the Red Church, the assassins are wanted men (and women). There is a wider political game in play, as the powers that be try to expose and destroy the assassins for their temerity in attacking the throne.
The final piece of the jigsaw is that Mia is a “shadowkin,” a rare breed that can commune with mysterious shadow creatures and manipulate darkness to their advantage. Quite the skill for an assassin.
This enigmatic side to her character makes Mia fully rounded. She’s three-dimensional in a way fantasy characters often aren’t. Mia is not all grimdark and daggers in the back; she has a softer side too. Nevernight is an excellent book, the first in a new series. Most of the ends are tied off in this book, but there’s a host of unanswered questions too, and, as the narrator tells us from the outset, Nevernight is just the beginning. I can’t wait for the book two to see what happens next.
Illuminae is also part of a series (The Illuminae Files), the second book, Gemina , is also out now. James Floyd Kelly has already covered both for GeekDad (here and here) but I’d happily lend my weight to his recommendations. The books are most notable for their mixed media storytelling. They include straight narrative accounts but also intercepted emails, descriptions of video footage, and transcripts of secret conversations. There’s even ship schematics, which definitely appealed to the geek in me.
Illuminae is certainly an exciting book. The closest I can describe how I felt reading it is to say that it felt like playing Half-Life for the first time. Half-Life in those early stages when you weren’t quite sure what was going on. I appreciate that’s a somewhat superannuated reference, but for me, that’s about as visceral as reading can get.
All these books (Nevernight and The Illuminae Files) are probably aimed at a YA audience, but I would have said readers should be the upper end of that market to fully appreciate the books. Nevernight is particularly bloody and there’s some sex too. Illuminae has some scary imagery, and the concepts of betrayal and manipulation are best appreciated by older readers. If YA books aren’t you’re thing, don’t be put off. These are great books for adults too.
So, one author, two very promising series (one, of course, co-written). I’m very excited about where these series might go next. In the meantime, I may have to slake my Kristoff thirst with his first series, The Lotus War.
I received Nevernight as part of the Amazon Vine Programme. I discovered Illuminae via book-blogger extraordinaire “For Winter Nights.” If you like SF, Crime, or historical fiction, give her a follow, you won’t regret it. Kristoff and Kaufman are both touring the US now. Tour dates can be found here.