Spring on the continent of Kameria is a dangerous time. With merchants flooding the roads to hawk their wares, the perils of their travel have many casualties as Keda soon learns.
Parents killed by the restless dead she’s picked up by an organization she’s never heard of and passed onto the mysterious protector, a woman who asks to be called Tante. But as they travel deeper into the woodlands, more dangers make themselves known as the two of them try to find a place in this world for the now orphaned girl.
In a world full of magic, monsters, and uncertainty, the world isn’t terribly kind to those who born into it that aren’t special.
3.5/5 Stars – Not to my personal tastes, but worth it for the ending.
This book follows a mute and recently orphaned girl named Keda on her travels with Tante – a warrior and a member of the Pyreflies – as they try to bring her to safety. It’s a dark story in a harsh world, but it thrives in its handling of disability representation, found family, and hope. Keda starts as a helpless and traumatized child, unable to speak with strangers and addicted to sleeping draughts to stave off the nightmares that vividly recall the night her parents died at the hands of zombies. She’s handed off to the gruff ranger and dragged halfway across the continent in a series of tragic misadventures that test both women to their absolute limits and prove their strength.
Keda very quickly won me over as she demonstrated a quick wit, curiosity in spades, and a level of resourcefulness that’s admirable in someone who was previously a pampered noble merchant’s daughter. Despite her new disability, she learned to communicate through writing questions on her slate or in a notebook, and coming up with signs and body language to express herself. Tante takes her seriously throughout the adventure and teaches her to be more capable and self-sufficient. Her trauma is handled realistically and tactfully, showing that moving on from grief and loss is not a simple or easy or short process. Likewise, Tante immediately became my favorite character. I love love love world-weary mentors who never lose their compassion and sense of justice. Unraveling the bits of her backstory was a satisfying build-up of both her character development and her relationship with Keda as she started opening up more. Their dynamic at the end of the book is delightful and I cannot wait to read more about all their adventures together.
My main gripe with this book is the lackluster world building – though it exists for good reason. Lynnette Bacon-Nguyen tries to subvert the stereotypical fantasy cliche of an orphaned chosen one stumbling into greatness unassisted, and show what it’s like for an ordinary person in a grim dark setting. I think this idea works very well in the intention – Keda’s character arc feels like a slower-paced walk through the first few steps of the Hero’s Journey, and it certainly accomplished its goal in showing that everyday life in a grimdark setting sucks. That being said, I think it could be possible to illustrate these with a more original setting, or even just a new spin on the same creatures we’re already familiar with. The restless dead are scary, sure, but at the end of the day, they’re your run-of-the-mill zombies. The magic system has potential – I want to learn more about the religion and the churches, about how they interact with the magic of the world, and what it takes to learn magic. These things aren’t directly a part of Keda’s story, but even as a soft-magic system, I still would have liked it to be more fleshed out to help immerse us into the world of the story. It could be hard to get through the story sometimes when so many depressing obstacles keep getting thrown at these poor characters who are just trying their best to survive.
That being said, the world isn’t entirely grimdark. They receive help from the people in various villages they stop in, and go out of their way to put the restless dead back to rest so they cannot hurt any other people. The pyreflies and certain members of the church stand as a glimmer of hope in an otherwise miserable world. While I struggled to get through the middle of the book, the resolution of Keda’s character arc and the setup for future books in this series made it all worth the while and makes me excited to read more.
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