(thanks to Rebellion Publishing and NetGalley for granting me an ARC of this book!)
Read if you like: lyrical writing, necromancy, family, legacy, inheritance, thematic worldbuilding, setting as character, multicultural setting, linguistic detail, nontraditional gender norms, skeletons, ghosts, fierce women, soft men, birds, catacombs, whimsy, death magic, epic battles, history with consequences.
Triggers: animal abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse, child neglect, child torture, mutilation, dismemberment, gore, blood (note: while these triggers are present, they’re not overly graphic, and since the main character is a necromancer, she doesn’t describe these things with a “horror” intent in mind, hence why this book can also be described as whimsical; this juxtaposition is part of its style)
Life gets complicated when Death gets involved.
To be born into a family of royal assassins pretty much guarantees that your life is going to be… rather unusual. Especially if, like Miscellaneous “Lanie” Stones, you also have a vicious allergy to all forms of violence and bloodshed, and an uncanny affinity for bringing the dead back to life.
To make matters worse, family debt looms – a debt that will have to be paid sooner rather than later if Lanie and her sister are to retain ownership of the ancestral seat, Stones Manor. Lanie finds herself courted and threatened by powerful parties who would love to use her worryingly intimate relationship with the goddess of death for their own nefarious ends. But the goddess has other plans…
(Goodreads book profile here)
What ultimately shone the most for me in this book is the way that theme, metaphor and worldbuilding all blend so seamlessly together to the point that I even struggle pulling them apart now, but I’ll do my best.
Let me start with the things that I enjoyed about the worldbuilding, specifically.
We’re dealing with a protagonist who performs death magic (Lanie Stones). This makes the setting and the plot inherently macabre, yet somehow Cooney manages to make death feel… whimsical and aphrodisiacal. There is a colorful whimsy to the world, particularly with the way that Lanie’s death magic works, and it gives me strong Studio Ghibli vibes. I’ve seen this book comped to Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir, but I honestly don’t think that’s a good comparative title. If anything, it’s only a comparative title insofar as the necromancy itself goes. And I even hesitate to say this because Lanie’s necromancy doesn’t carry the same vibe as Harrow’s. Rather, it carries the opposite. Lanie’s necromancy—indeed, Lanie herself—is all about love. Lanie loves death as a mother, treats death as a mother, as the God that Death is—and she makes us love death in return. She helps up make peace with death. And that’s where the theme sneaks in, but I’ll save that for a couple of paragraphs just yet. So, let’s continue with what I enjoyed about the worldbuilding.
I enjoyed the multicultural setting. We have three nations whose cultures and histories are so interlinked that they become mirror images of each other. This doesn’t mean that they’re not distinct. On the contrary. They are incredibly distinct. What it means, is that we’re dealing with a setting where natural assimilation between cultures has occurred over decades, maybe even centuries, yet each culture still retains its own independence. From my own point of view, this reminded me a lot of the relationship between Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. To give an example: the nations share (some of) the same Gods, but call them by different names. To give another example: there are schools dedicated to one nation within another nation. Another example: each nation has wizards with wizard marks, but they all have a preferred type of magic, dependent on the God in question.
Speaking of the wizard marks, I found those to be a fun conceptual twist to the more familiar concept of a witch mark as these have been used both in fiction and in history.
But, going back to the multicultural setting, this also helped ensure that all the characters had incredibly distinct voices. One nation’s speech is built around rhyming and body language, to give an example. A lot of thought has gone into the linguistic elements of this book. Both in this sense, but also when it comes to placenames and people’s names. You have a constant sense of all these cultures mingling, yet staying distinct at the same time, all based on the terminology used.
Lastly, I loved the constant, but always subtle, subversion of gender norms both through clothing, make-up, and mannerisms. You won’t find traditional gender norms here—and it’s a delight to read.
Transitioning from the worldbuilding into the theme, this wasn’t really a book about death for me. This was a book about love. And that’s why I personally find Harrow the Ninth a misleading comparative title. This book has so much love—unfurling from Lanie’s own large capacity for love—that it didn’t give me the same vibe of Harrow the Ninth at all. But you also have to read a good part of the book before this starts to become apparent to you. The book opens with death, grief, echo wounds, and a literal allergy to death, but it ends with love as the answer to death. It’s about coming to terms with death through love. It’s a love-letter to funerals across the world where people smile through their tears.
Adding onto that, it’s also a question of where you put your love.
In the Gods? In your family? In your friends? In yourself?
Lanie uses love through death (magic) to set herself free from the bonds of her family legacy, all the while still honoring that legacy. And Cooney asks us, the readers, to remember that death is forever the sister to love. Or perhaps daughter, in this case.
As a last and slightly more critical note, I’ll say that the pacing and the plot both slow down at times. I struggled slightly towards the middle, personally. It’s a long book, basically, and that means it naturally will lose momentum at times. For most readers, that is. And especially for YA Crossover fantasy, which is what I would classify this as, age-wise, although there seems to be a general confusion about this (both from the audience and the publisher side). Cooney has magnificent prose, and that prose is allowed to flourish in this book, which can both be good and bad insofar as the pacing of the plot goes. Primarily, for me, it was good, even if I did struggle in places.