My thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for an advanced reader copy in exchange for an honest review.
Wow, this was a gem of a debut novel. I have never read a book that evolves so thoroughly from beginning to end. What starts as a traditional fantasy school story quickly devolves into a very grim tale of war and subjugation. I had read author R.F. Kuang’s warning that this book was incredibly violent and “not a YA fantasy school story,” but that is so hard to believe when reading the delightful first third of the book. …and then reality sets in about midway through — this is bloody, brutal, and unrelentingly dark fantasy.
I loved the way Kuang builds the world and lore of the Nikara Empire. There is enough similarity to the real world to ground the story and setting in something relatable before imbuing it with the fantastical. In terms of writing, Kuang’s prose is sharp, concise, and makes for easy reading. This is a longer book, but moves at a fast pace, as the story never overstays its welcome in one location, changes up side characters frequently, and drastically upends the overall tone as the book goes on.
Character-wise, Rin is a fascinating protagonist, she’s smart, driven, but has a complex relationship with authority, patience, and control. This conflict drives her bumpy ascension from peasant girl to star pupil to war combatant. Rin is sometimes frustrating and difficult to root for, but the presence of an intriguing cast of side characters gives Rin the room to make mistakes and indulge her worst impulses. She doesn’t always have to be the moral center of the story, which is not always the case for fantasy protagonists.
Early on, Rin states, “War doesn’t determine who’s right. War determines who remains.” and that turns into a prescient thesis statement for the book, as Kuang explores the complex morality of war and its combatants. Subsequent books in this trilogy are sure to further engage with this idea and I look forward to seeing where the story goes from here. Overall, Kuang has crafted a complex and absorbing debut novel that is unsettling and enthralling in equal measure.
★★★★½ out of 5