Author: Jay Kristoff
Nevernight went through various blogs with a force of natural calamity, garnering a lot of praise for originality and vividness of the story despite what seemed like a very clichéd plot. When I saw Aaron’s glowing review at Swords and Spectres I decided to finally forgo my misgivings and give the book, constituting – not surprisingly – the first installment in Kristoff’s new series, a chance.
Boy, I wish I didn’t.
I was close to DNFing this book thrice. The first time happened on the first page, when the contrivance of the interlapping opening scenes hit me like a hammer between the eyes. The second time happened within the first few chapters, when I was so fed up with the narrator’s dubious personality charm that I didn’t think I could take any more of his/her blathering. You undoubtedly know what I’m talking about, O, gentlefriend, if you’ve read the book. Third time should be the charm, alas, I powered through by sheer effort of will just to write a vitriolic review later on.
That is not to say Kristoff cannot construct a compelling fantasy world – on the contrary, the best parts of the book where those in which the careful worldbuilding had a chance to shine. The book has not one, but three very nice, detailed maps, an interesting – if fuzzy – magic system, and a nice Mediterranean vibe, strongly inspired by Venetian renaissance and Roman Empire. The concept of darkin as a type of people wielding power over shadows and darkness, and, subsequently, over a hidden dimension allowing for instant travel between its manifestations, was intriguing and full of potential. Also the enmity between light and darkness, with their apparent long and convoluted history of relationship and the meddlesome addition of religious faith right in the middle, was something I would be happy to read more about. The whole mystery surrounding darkin was pretty cool – the old trope of knowing thyself has always held charm to me – but only to a point. When the one character that could shed some light on the shadowy issue was offed before he could actually peep a word, I just rolled my eyes. An epic eye-roll, I might add, but at that time I was close enough to finish and used enough to Kristoff’s narrative choices that didn’t even consider DNFing it for the fourth time 😉
For all the book’s strengths, however, I could not shake the feeling I was far from its target audience. First, Nevernight had a very strong YA feel for me, and while I read books advertised as YA from time to time, the sheer amount of teenage angst and drama in this one was much too much for me. Now is a good time to write about my third almost-DNF, which came about during a description of a magical esthetic surgery of the teen protagonist, who till that moment had been rather boyish in appearance, but thanks to an Igor-inspired flesh witch was quickly (if not exactly painlessly) gifted with a big pair of boobs and a face do-up, and both changes had been repeatedly commented upon for the next several chapters. Gaaah! “Girly”, in a rather obnoxiously wish-fulfilling way. I do get that body consciousness is a thing, especially among teenage girls these days, but for the life of me I can’t see a positive effect of such magical enhancement, especially that here it was simplified to: “before, you had to pay for sex; now, you can have whomever you want – for free!”
At the same time, the amount of gore and blood was surprisingly high for a YA novel – and while most of the abuse was reversible, adding to the youth feel of invulnerability, the death toll – within and without school walls – was pretty high overall, and some scenes seemed created only for their shock value.
Secondly, while I appreciated some of the secondary characters, such as Mister Kindly the shadow-cat or Mercurio, the kind foster-father/guardian, or the un-dead librarian Aurelius, the main characters I couldn’t care less about. Mia Corvere felt to me as alive as a shop mannequin, built up from requisite prefabricated elements: orphan, check; childhood trauma, check; quest for vengeance, check; and the most obvious one, the Chosen One with a peculiar, dangerous and mysterious gift, check. Her peers were for the most part cast from the same mold: a ghost from the past driving them to become the avenging hand of Darkness, a very teenage-y lust for revenge mixed with anger and a whole lot of insecurities, and a very simple view of the world, with oneself at its very center. All in all, the characters felt flat and… not precisely lifeless, as there was enough Sturm und Drang to share with a several more books’ casts, but overly simplified in their psychological makeup and needs. They felt more like puppets employed in the narrative for the sake of Mia’s arc development and while there was a bit of growth for a chosen few of them, it wasn’t enough for me. That said, it may well be the case of a first book in a series, where the author needs to choose between developing the characters and the new world setting – acquiring balance is indeed a very difficult feat to achieve.
Thirdly, while the Nevernight’s world at large seemed like a great place to explore, the school setting itself felt created in the same prefab vein as the characters. A mix of other magic/unusual schools lifted from Harry Potter, Kvothe and Deadly Class, it was made exclusively of well-known and rather worn out ingredients: peer rivalry, stern and unforgiving teachers, deadly tasks and lurking danger, first sexual experiences, friendships, death and drama… I could go on and on, but would be hard pressed to find anything new or original. All the building blocks have been rehashed so many times already, and seemed to be not even remotely refreshed by Kristoff.
Narrative-wise, there were two rather nicely set twists, and one of them was quite pleasantly surprising. The second one was detectable a mile off, after a particularly in-your-face scene of Mia’s moral supremacy over her peers, but still, its explanation was neatly done and tied up the subplots in a way that was at once efficient and elegant. Once again, I could appreciate Kristoff’s storytelling skills while at the same time chafing under the heavy burden of his overreliance on all the overused and abused tropes. In short, I could comprehend the appeal of the book, in theory, yet I absolutely could not feel it.
I will not be reading the further installments. Kristoff is undoubtedly a skilled writer, but judging by Nevernight and fellow bloggers’ reviews of his other books, what he offers is simply not for me.