It is rare for me to find a book, fantasy or otherwise, that I so immediately connect with and enjoy. It happened with my first Haruki Murakami novel, with Senlin Ascends of course, and to my surprise with Pierce Brown’s Red Rising trilogy. If I judged books solely on their cover, I might have guessed that it would happen with Nevernight – it’s so beautiful that I could easily see framing it and putting it in my office. I knew almost nothing about the book going in, had never read Kristoff, and in fact had been put off from a few folks who didn’t care for his overwrought prose.
Turns out, I like overwrought prose, but there is a huge caveat – it must be done well, and it must be done appropriately. I think Jay Kristoff nails it with Nevernight, and I am ready to declare Mia Corvere Queen of the World.
If I had to pitch Nevernight, I would tells readers two things. One, imagine a story wherein Arya Stark, of Game of Thrones fame, heads off to her secret school to become an assassin, but instead of glossing over most of that time in a montage, readers were privy to nearly every detail of her time training. Then imagine that instead of training at the House of Black and White, Arya went to an Italian version of Hogwart’s. That, in short, is Nevernight. Combined with the aforementioned progatonist, Mia Corvere, whose focus on revenge borders on the religious, and it makes for a compelling read.
The world where Mia operates is the fantasy equivalent of Renaissance Italy, which is obvious from the start due to Kristoff’s naming conventions and opera-like introduction. The city of Nevernight exists in almost perpetual daylight in a world where three suns rule the sky and the sole moon rarely makes an appearance. I expected this constant light to play more of a role, truthfully, and I suspect such ultraviolet radiation might be more of an issue than Kristoff allows, but it’s fantasy, right? For all we know, the suns of Kristoff’s imagination exude no UV rays. The Corvere family is Nevernight nobility, at least until Mia’s father rebels against the Empire and is hanged before her eyes. She narrowly escapes death herself and finds a man named Mercurio who starts her on the path to revenge. Like Arya Stark, Mia Corvere has a list of names that can only be satisfied with blood.
Blood, in fact, is a large theme in Nevernight. “When all is blood, blood is all,” is a phrase oft repeated, and everything from the color palettes described to character motivations is tinted by the color red. Shadows are Nevernight’s other component. “The brighter the light, the deeper the shadow.” Mia Corvere is Lady Niah’s chosen, Niah being the solo moon deity that must constantly fight her brighter ex-husband. Mia can command the shadows around her, allowing her to disappear when she wills it. Layer these themes of blood and shadow and Kristoff paints a dark portrait, but one sumptuous with layers and some of the best purple prose in fantasy.
The only thing I didn’t love about Nevernight, and the one thing that almost ruined it, is Kristoff’s use of footnotes. I imagine this is a contentious point, and one editors likely mulled over for a while. It also asks questions about exposition and the “showing versus telling” argument that we have all heard. Kristoff peppers his text with footnotes, as though we were reading some historical text about a long-dead civilization and needed constant explanations about the references therein. The footnotes are also often the narrator’s way of offering their opinion or an excuse to crack a joke. Often these jokes work, and there is a personality to the footnotes that delineates them from the actual body of the book. However, they severely break up the flow of the narrative. It’s frustrating because I can appreciate the attempt here not to inundate the story with paragraphs of world-building. This can be cumbersome, and some of the best fantasy manages to sneak in its world-building without simply telling the reader what might have happened or why a system is the way it is. Kristoff chooses to build most of his lore into these footnotes, and in this way he wriggles out of the need for in-paragraph exposition. I’m not sure it works, and I was thankful that by the midway point of the book it starts to happen less and less, particularly as the book’s plot begins to ramp up to frantic levels.
If those footnotes hadn’t scratched the surface of this beautiful book, I might have been ready to declare its perfection. From the front cover to the last words, I enjoyed Nevernight like it was a vintage red wine, except that I am clueless about wine and know leagues more about good writing so that analogy fails a bit but I needed to say something red and that fit. It is dark, in the extreme, and that some people have dubbed this book as young adult is profane and laughable. Mia might be young, but there is nothing innocent or naive about what Kristoff has portrayed. This is as grimdark as it gets, but with less of the crude nature often found in such works and more elegance than much in the genre. I am as excited as I get about reading through the rest of Kristoff’s Nevernight trilogy, and Mia has been granted her place on my personal fantasy character Mount Rushmore. Long may she reign.