Okay, so you know how sometimes when you have a fever and you’re all achy and you have the chills, your skin is like, really absurdly sensitive? And it hurts to wear clothes but if you take off your clothes you’ll be cold and get the fever shivers, so you wear the clothes, and you can feel everything, from all over your arm hairs and back hairs (and all the other hairs, too), and after a while all of the sensations together actually start to hurt collectively, because it’s just too much sensation? But you can’t stop moving because the fever is also making you antsy, so it’s either jiggle around and twitch because you just need to, meanwhile agitating all your fevered hairs and starting that whole process over and over again until you just want to rip all of your skin off and say BE DONE WITH IT, or go the other way and not move at all and stay perfectly still and die of boredom and also from all the ants crawling around under your skin because you just. have. to. move. You have to? All you have are bad choices, and everything hurts and you’re all alone and your eyeballs are hot and you can feel everything and it’s all horrible. It probably all ends in tears of one kind or another.
That’s what it was like to read this book.
Not gonna spoil plot details (until maybe the end), but here are some things I have to say:
(Regardless of spoilers, this review probably won’t make much sense to you if you haven’t read the first two books in the series, Stormdancer and Kinslayer).
1. This book made me feel like I was being pulled in two different directions in a variety of ways, which was ultimately exhilirating but emotionally exhausting. The disjointed, short chapters. The way that something BIG happened in every chapter. Everything was BIG after a while, which meant nothing was really big anymore (as we all know, when everyone is super NO ONE WILL BE). The way the plot kept moving at all times, sometimes yo-yoing between good and bad events (but more often than not, between bad and very bad events). One second a character is finally getting together with another character, the next one is dead, and it turns out them getting together also ruined some other shit. Or a character dies. Or another character dies. Then another one! And then a revelation of bad things to come. And then another one! This was effective the first couple of times, but as the hits kept coming, I just got to the point where I was like, okay, stop. Enough. You’ve made your point. If you do it again, I’m checking out of this motherfucking hotel, and I am NOT coming back.
2. The pacing was off, making some of the big moments hit less hard. Also, in my opinion, Kristoff needs to work on the writing in those big moments, which is either overwritten or cheesy and cliched. Or both. I’d cite examples, but I had to return the book to the library. For me, the short chapters and the constant back and forth between characters in various plights had benefits and disadvantages. They push you through and give you an urgency to rush through the book and find out what happens, but they also leave you feeling tired, and don’t really give you a chance to inhabit the book. You’re too busy rushing through. Good pacing is all about contrasts. You have to have the slow and steady in order to appreciate the fast and furious (and vice versa). His sentences also tend toward the overdramatic, both in terms of the actual words chosen, and the way he constructs them. Subtle is not a watchword in this book. I wish he’d have pulled back on a lot of it, and I know there were multiple instance in the book where he would say something, and then follow it up with a sentence that was completely redundant, I guess for dramatic effect? It just made it feel overwritten. (Again, sorry I don’thave examples*.)
*I vaguely remember one sentence from near the end, after (SPOILER!) Buruu dies, sacrificing himself to close the doors of hell. Yukiko is thinking, and the narrator is narrating something along the lines of how “the hellhole that was just there is gone now, but there’s still a hole inside of her.” And if Kristoff would have stopped there, it would have been perfect. But then he continues on with something like, “Where he used to be.” Which is a fragment, first of all. And second, we already got that part, it didn’t need to be said. It’s actually less moving the more words he adds on there, less powerful for having said it than if it had remained implied.
3. I’ve read interviews with Kristoff where he states he doesn’t believe in happy endings, but all the same, this book did deliver some cliched (and tonally off, almost cheesy) moments, that all tied in to a (relatively) happy ending. I say relatively, because I think we’re supposed to think the ending isn’t happy because, well, the book is basically one big blood bath. Almost everybody dies. By the end, I was so sick of it, there was one character who I thought was dead, and I was seeeeeriously done with the book. I was ready to write it off and be really pissed. It would have been the character death that broke the camel’s back, that finally pushed the book into TOO MUCH territory (which it’s probably in anyway . . . seriously, everyone everyone everyone dies). It’s almost like Kristoff thinks all those deaths and the horror and terror of the war disguises all those other moments where he totally gives in to the fantasy cliches. The speech that Yukiko gives at the end falls into this category, as is what happens to Buruu–both events feel manufactured and predictable, which sucks because up until the ending, this series was good at not doing the thing that other fantasy books have done before. Luckily for Kristoff, he backed off the character death and I was able to escape the book and still think well of it. Just, frustrating opposing things. Like, how there are basically two epilogues, and one was cheesy and pat as hell, tying up stuff that was implied and didn’t need to be said. And then one that was gorgeous and moving and made me cry. It’s maddening, frankly.
4. Disregarding all that other stuff I just said up there, the overall experience of reading this series (and this book) was a positive one. The fact that I was so mad at certain character deaths (and the way the series shortcut some endings into cheesiness) means that I cared enough about the characters to be upset. The fact that I was a little let down by the ending, and pissed at the ending, and lots of other things at the ending, likewise means I cared enough to be pissed and let down and lots of other things (yes, including crying, but those tears were cried under protest, dammit). The fact that parts of it were overwritten only stood out so much because the rest of the book was so solid. Kristoff may be exuberant as a writer now and overdo things a little, but I feel like if this joyful (and not so joyful) mess is what he can accomplish as a debut author, I kind of can’t wait to see what he’s going to do in the future. (I’m totally in for the sci-fi series he’s co-writing with fellow Aussie Amie Kaufman, due for release later this year, and for the weird fantasy/horror thing he’s got coming out the year after.)