I don’t know, I kind of feel like my brain has been hit by a tornado. This book was a lot. In a good way. But still, a lot. I’m not quite sure I’ve finished processing, but I definitely enjoyed the ride. This is just going to be one of those books that will sit in my brain and sort of gel there, and then eventually I’ll read it again and everything will just click. I’ll probably up my rating to five stars; I usually do when I re-read books that make me feel like this (this, being like the tornado has just vacated my mind and all my mind-papers are still floating in the air).
A brief summary, just for clarity’s sake. Twenty year old Alex Stern is the sole survivor of a bloody and violent multiple murder, and her whole life, she has been able to see ghosts. She’s approached in her hospital bed by the dean of Yale, who wants to recruit her to a mysterious secret society whose job is to police the other secret societies and keep them from abusing their power. Their power being magic, because in this book, all the major secret societies based in New Haven practice arcane rituals, designed to give them money, power, good looks, talent, etc. But Alex, a high school dropout from L.A., finds it difficult to fit in with the elite of Yale, on top of learning her new duties. The other POV character is Darlington, her colleague, but I’ll keep him mostly a surprise, because we don’t learn much about him until well into spoiler territory. The book is also a genre mish-mash. It’s fantasy and horror, but also there are elements of mystery and suspense novels in here as well.
First thing’s first. If you’re expecting tame but clever YA prose here, like what Bardugo gave us in the Six of Crows duology, you’re either going to be pleasantly surprised or very much disappointed, depending on how you feel about dark themes in your adult literature. Alex Stern is much more of a Lisbeth Salander than she is a Nina Zenek. If your favorite characters from Six of Crows are Inej and Kaz, you will probably dig the vibe of this book, which again, is very adult. It’s not bleak or hopeless or anything, but the book tackles head on: abusive relationships, drug use, sexual assault, abuses of power, and violence, among other things (spoilers). It’s a story about surviving those things. Bardugo has said in interviews that writing it was cathartic, so it feels very personal. It is also at times a challenging read, because some truly gross and upsetting things occur, but I never felt they were there solely for shock value. They had a narrative purpose.
This is also dark fantasy with elements of horror, so it’s not all going to be magical unicorns prancing through wholesome secret societies or whatever. I’m not sure why, but I assumed going in that this wouldn’t have much fantasy in it, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. I don’t think I’ve ever read a contemporary fantasy before that had such a steep learning curve. It felt (in a good way) the same way I feel when I’m starting a new epic fantasy series with new, complicated magic systems and social dynamics. In other words, worldbuilding up the wazoo. It’s also told in interlocking timelines, not chronologically. We flash from present day back to the Fall, back to Winter, then Fall, then Summer, etc. I enjoyed the skewed timeline. It kept the pace fresh, and the perspectives interesting.
I know there is a lot more I could say about this book. It’s packed full of stuff to have feelings about, one way or the other. I recommend that you all read it so I can have someone to talk about it with.