Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Review: Nevernight by Jay Kristoff

Cover of Nevernight, featuring a masked girl with long, dark hair. She stands against a white stone wall carved with coats of arms, her blood-drenched hands clasped around a white dagger. Shadowy wings rise from her shoulders.
Mia Corvere has spent the six years since her father’s execution transforming herself into an instrument of vengeance aimed at the men who branded him a traitor rather than a hero. She’s good, but she knows only a Blade of Niah, dark goddess of assassins, could hope to achieve her aims. And the brutal test for admittance to Niah’s school beneath the Silent Mountain is nothing compared to the trials teachers and students alike have in store for her.

Here’s the thing: I want to tell you all about NEVERNIGHT [Amazon | Kobo | The Book Depository] because I loved it deep in my soul--but the books I love the most are also the books I most struggle to talk about. So I’m gonna ramble, and I’m not gonna say nearly enough, and I’m gonna pray what I do say is enough to convince the fantasy-readers among you to seek out NEVERNIGHT as soon as ever you can.

It’s one of those glorious books that spoke both to my current self and to the me who discovered adult-marketed fantasy just over twenty years before the day when I plucked NEVERNIGHT off my library pile and dove in. The timing made it feel like more than simply a great read. It was a fucking amazing anniversary present.

To break it down, NEVERNIGHT is both its own thing and a book that combines all the best elements of the fantasy I loved in my youth and the fantasy I’m drawn to today. It’s the lush setting and revelatory chronological leaps of THE LIES OF LOCKE LAMORA by Scott Lynch. The weight of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time and the discoverability of Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar novels. The humour-infused darkness of Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings and the elegant darkness of Sarah Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinths. The brutal school setting of R.A. Salvatore’s HOMELAND. The pure sense of wonder of David and Leigh Eddings’s Belgariad. The familiar unfamiliarity of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter. The logical dismissal of what we everyday world folks consider natural laws present in such books as Joan D. Vinge’s Tiamat cycle, George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, and Galen Beckett’s Ivy Lockwell novels. And bits of a dozen other texts work their way in there, too.

I’m not sure how many of these beloved-to-me sources actually informed Jay Kristoff’s worldbuilding process, and I’m not sure it matters. My point is, NEVERNIGHT is in conversation with the genre. It takes all this stuff that’s been done before and twists it into something fresh.

And it’s fucking amazing.

That's worth repeating a dozen more times.

It’s fucking amazing, it’s fucking amazing, it’s fucking amazing, it’s fucking amazing, it’s fucking amazing, it’s fucking amazing, it’s fucking amazing, it’s fucking amazing, it’s fucking amazing, it’s fucking amazing, it’s fucking amazing, it’s fucking amazing.

The world hooked me straight of. Mia’s home city of Godsgrave has clear ties to eighteenth century Venice, both in its geography and so far as its trappings go, but there’s also a healthy dose of Rome in the mix and a bunch of influences I'm disinclined to pin down when I could just squee over them instead. Like, Godsgrave has killer robots! (I love it when there’s killer robots.) And the bones of an ancient god! (I love it when there’s ancient god bones.)

While we get the best look at Godsgrave, it’s clear the rest of the world is just as intricate. It’s also obvious Godsgrave has had an enormous influence on the countries that surround it, thanks to its central location and superior attitude, but it hasn’t managed to run totally roughshod over everyone else. I had a fabulous time poking around the place, figuring out how everything worked.

This world’s light and darkness cycles obey different rules, too; a further mystery to delight in, and one that heavily informs the way the characters live in and speak about their world. They have turns instead of days, with a nevernight planted at the end of each. Many people experience adverse psychological effects from the ever-present sunslight. Curtain manufacturers are super important. Truedarks, which fall every three years or so, are both celebrations and periods of utter terror as the suns leave the sky. It’s awesome.

The writing also drew me in like that. You can tell Kristoff had a blast with his narrator, especially where the footnotes are concerned. The book is ostensibly written by someone who has known and loved Mia, and this unnamed person is as keen to play up their insider status and impart their knowledge of the world as they are to elaborate on Mia’s journey from traitor’s brat to master assassin. The footnotes, and indeed many of the straight narrative passages, display a keen sense of humour and an appreciation for irony and misdirection. This as-yet-unnamed soul may be my favourite narrator since Hazel, who tells Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’s SAGA.

This narrator, like Hazel or Fitz from Robin Hobb’s ASSASSIN’S APPRENTICE, also deliberately spoils several things right off the bat. We know Mia’s career trajectory. We know she’s dead in the narrator’s present. And we know just enough about what the world looks like once Mia’s through with it. This device hooked me but good, given the expectations it sets up and will no doubt toy with across the rest of the series. I’m not a trusting reader. I know I’ll spend the subsequent books wondering what the narrator left out of these early revelations, and how else one might interpret the things we (think we) know for sure. It's gonna be a blast.

I came for the world and the writing; I stayed for the characters. Mia, as the narrator informs us, is not without her charms. She’s got more than a little monster in her, personality-wise and so far as her unique ability to manipulate the darkness goes, but she’s not terrible. (Not yet. Perhaps that’s coming.) Monster Girl devotee that I am, I thrilled to her every move. The secondary characters, too, are well-drawn and intriguing. When they remain opaque, it’s for good reason.

A tantalizing amount remains opaque as of the end of this first volume. Kristoff’s playing a long game here, and I can’t wait to see where he takes everyone next. What else he reveals. Which seemingly small details weigh as much as the world.

As predicted, I haven't said nearly enough. This book spoke to me so truly that I couldn’t think of leaving it unreviewed, but it also hit me in ways I’m struggling to put into words.

Read it, please. That's all.

ETA: that is, read it if you believe you can do so safely. I'm ashamed to say I missed many problematic elements within the text, and I encourage you to read Anjulie Te Pohe's examination of racism and author accountability in NEVERNIGHT before you make a decision.


  1. It is really good on audio, too! Glad you liked this book so much. I thought you would. :)

  2. Wait okay, I have a question still. Didn't you super love The Illuminae as well? Cause I got bored of that one (I'm sorrrryyyyyyy to everyone else who loved it, I wanted to love it, what is wrong with me) and now I am nervous to read more things by him. Would I like Nevernight? Do you think? Y/N?

    1. I did super-love ILLUMINAE, BUT--and this is a pretty big but--I didn't start super-loving it until a fair ways in. The opening convinced me it'd be something special, but then the next chunk was just kinda good. That's probably the bit that bored you.

      So I'm scared to say, "Yes, Jenny, you'll love NEVERNIGHT."