I’ll be honest that I almost didn’t pick up this book. Neither the cover nor the blurb really grabbed me, but I reconsidered when I started hearing other reviewers talk about the book. Character-driven? Fascinating world-building? Serial killer mystery? Check, check, check. And while this is the first book in a trilogy, there’s no cliffhanger ending and there’s a good balance between what’s resolved and what’s still left to explore.
Krona, a Regulator usually responsible for helping retrieve lost enchanted objects, is a bit bored at her team’s latest post protecting a bunch of those priceless – and dangerous – artifacts at a politician’s ball. But when unknown forces attack and make off with two of the artifacts, including the death mask of a legendarily vicious serial killer, the team, led by Krona’s sister De-Lia, must figure out who did this and why the mask has been stolen. But the investigation gradually reveals that the heist of the missing mask goes farther back – and has many more ramifications – than Krona could possibly have guessed.
“You are much too clever to leave things cut-and-dry.”
“But cut-and-dry is simple. It’s efficient.”
There are multiple POVs in the story, with the main one being Krona’s in the present. A lot of Krona’s character revolves around her hero worship of her sister. I loved the relationship between the two of them and how much they genuinely cared and tried to take care of the other, from buying tangerines to taking the heat at work. Krona’s followed in De-Lia’s footsteps all her life, from attending the academy to becoming a Regulator, and she’s sometimes derided for being nothing more than her shadow. It’s partly a reaction to shared childhood trauma, including that she’d rather act – even wrongly – than hesitate to act. Krona tries to act like her sister – brave, strong, but somewhat gruff – in the hopes that acting will become being. But it’s the areas where she’s not like her sister that really make her an interesting character, including her relationship with her informant, Thibaut. There’s definitely some romantic tension between the two that I’m hoping will be explored further, but in this book, their banter added some much needed levity to the book.
Interspersed with Krona’s investigation are chapters from Charbon’s and Melanie’s POVs, as well as smaller bits from other characters. By the time Charbon’s POV pops up, the reader has heard a lot about the infamous serial killer. But when his POV picks up, Charbon is a sort of misunderstood genius, at turns lauded for his skill in surgery while reviled for honing that skill “disrespectfully” on corpses. It’s that past willingness to bend the law for the greater good – or at least as he defines it – that draws him into his predicament and ties in to Krona’s investigation. By contrast, Melanie is a country girl who’s brought her terminally ill mother to the big city in hopes of healing her. But things don’t go quite right, to both Melanie’s benefit and detriment. Unlike Charbon, who I found mostly annoying, I sympathized with Melanie, and the parallels between her and Krona were especially interesting. A lot of this book revolves around the themes of trauma and family and how they intertwine: how Krona and De-Lia interact at home and at work, how Melanie’s life has revolved around caring for her ill mother. For all three characters, their decisions are a spiraling mess of how far they’re willing to go to protect the ones the love or to protect the greater good – and what they do when those two things are in conflict.
“She’d asked herself years ago what she was willing to do, how far she was willing to go to protect the people she cared about.
Now, she was about to find out.”
The worldbuilding, especially the religion and magic system, is fascinating. There are five main deities, each of whom has a different gender identity that matches their assigned sphere of influence. Those deities formed the Valley, where all of humankind lives, protected from the outside world with all its wild magic. The only things able to cross the god-formed barrier are vargers, magical creatures that come in five different forms and who feed solely on people. Each form can only be stopped by a certain metal, which again calls back to the gods. On top of that, a person’s skill can, with certain preparations before and after death, be transferred into a mask. So you could harness someone’s ability to detect lies, or play the cello, or shoot well – but only for the length of time you’re wearing the mask. And the masks don’t come without risks, either, as the essence of that person – their echo – also still resides within the mask, and can temporarily take over weak or unwary hosts.
“The more I try to wind the lengths of my life into a neat, manageable knot, the more they seem to stretch and fray and snap. Order is not easy. Breaking takes less effort than building, that is the way of the world.”
The main issue with the book for me was the pacing. On the one hand, the multiple POVs gradually build up the story and add tension, and give the reader time to immerse themselves in the world. On the other hand, it does take a while before the threads start knitting together. I’m very much a character-driven reader, but it did feel like the book took a while to get going and then would switch POVs just when things were getting good.
Overall, I’m definitely hooked and will be eagerly looking forward to the next in the series!
I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.