Italian-inspired fantasy about a school of assassins
Content warning: sex, very mild spoiler about one character
This was the most recent set book for my fantasy book club and, given lockdown, likely to be the last one for a while. I have seen these books for sale with that typical white cover, black silhouette with a splash of colour that is pretty standard across the epic fantasy genre.
“Nevernight” by Jay Kristoff, the first book in “The Nevernight Chronicle”, is a fantasy novel about a teenage girl called Mia who is gearing herself up for an assassination. In a world with three suns, it is very rarely dark yet shadows creep through the city she calls home and Mia has been in hiding since she was a child. Once she collects her tithe she, and the mysterious catlike shadow she calls Mr Kindly, flee the city to try to find the Red Church: a school of assassins full of students driven by revenge. However, the Red Church may be even more deadly than the city of bones she left behind.
Once this book got going, it was an engrossing read. Kristoff’s Italian-inspired Senate and city of Godsgrave was a unique setting, where geography meets anatomy under an almost never-ending daylight. I liked the magic in this book, and Kristoff manages to strike a good balance between maintaining the mystery of Mia’s abilities yet keeping the reader satisfied by exploring them in a variety of situations. He also is ruthless about who lives and who dies, and particularly in the later parts of the book, keeps you on your toes. I really liked the politics between the students and it was in these scenes that Kristoff’s writing really shone.
However, I found the first half of the book way too overwritten. Kristoff used a particular sentence structure multiple times along the lines of “all [noun]-[adjective] noun, and [noun]-[adjective] noun” which grew a bit tedious:
- “all open mouths and closed fists”
- “all milk-white skin and…bow-shaped lips”
- “all crushed red velvet”
- “coal-black eyes”
- “feather-down smile”.
I did feel like Kristoff found his groove as the book progressed, though he did like to write a passage, go back in time to give it context, then write the passage again which felt a bit repetitive. There was a really, really long chase scene through a desert that seemed a bit unnecessary, and it was after that the book started to come into its own. There were a few other things that bugged me. In the opening scenes, Mia loses her virginity to a “sweetboy” (a sexworker) and it is a painful, bloody cliché that is treated like a universal occurrence even though it isn’t. Unbelievably, she paid for the experience even though he was clumsy and she didn’t orgasm. It is not until page 326 that she realises perhaps she paid the sweetboy too much.
At some point Mia acquires a horse she nicknames Bastard, and although he is described as being 20 hands high, she easily is able to jump on him. It always disappoints me a little reading fantasy where the author gives away how little they know about horses, and this was a classic example: 20 hands is the size of the Guinness World Record holder for tallest horse, it is absolutely ludicrous that Mia could mount him without a stepladder. On top of that, Kristoff says that he is a thoroughbred which Wikipedia will quickly inform you ranges from 15.2 to 17 hands high i.e. a foot shorter than Bastard. Slight spoiler: another thing that didn’t make much sense was the character Hush. Although Hush is frequently described as beautiful, it is revealed at one point that he has no teeth. Another quick Wikipedia search indicates that loss of teeth can result in a sunken face and a shrinking jawbone.
A readable book with good worldbuilding and an interesting premise that annoyed me from time to time.