The kingdom of Karthia is ruled by the dead and sustained by the living, and mediated by those with the Sight. It is a world so perfectly balanced that change itself has been forcibly banished: the undead King Wylding has decreed that all remain as it was when he lived, and for two hundred years it has remained so, thanks in no small part to the ice-eyed necromancers who serve the king.
Odessa is a particularly gifted necromancer, one who can innately sense the ever-shifting locations of the deadlands. She values her work and is valued in turn, favored by the king as his “sparrow,” one who swiftly returns him from his periodic dips into death. He and those like him, the undead in command of their faculties, are prone to madness the more time they spend outside the deadlands and so must repeatedly die to refresh themselves. But the process is not without danger: if anyone living glimpses the flesh of the dead, those dead become mindless horrors called Shades, and all their wisdom turns to hunger.
But Odessa and her fellow necromancers are beyond careful to never let that happen. Yet despite their precautions, Shades and deaths are rising. In such a tormented world, is it possible to keep faith with the dead and the living? Is it better to hold on, or to let go?
I was promised a book that exploded gender boundaries (see jacket quote), but this really just features plenty of gay, bi, and lesbian characters. Don’t get me wrong, I am thrilled we now can have books where this is pervasive and un-remarked-upon. But it’s not really exploding any boundaries. There are gay people. Their romances are sweet and fraught and loving, each depending more on the individuals in them than any sort of tokenism. I love it, but it’s not exactly an explosion–and honestly, I prefer it that way.
Moving on: We’re told that Odessa loves life, that she cared even for insects and shrubs, and that she loves to dance and drink and have fun. But that supposed exuberance hardly penetrates the narrative voice. Odessa seems affectionate but not passionate, and driven but not terribly happy or deeply in love with the world. Much is made of her strong emotions, but–and perhaps this says more about me than the book–none of her reactions seem out of proportion. Unwise, perhaps, but not excessive. Nevertheless, I enjoyed following her through this world.
The writing is adequate to the story but not anything compelling on its own. I appreciate the effort put into the depictions of grief but it all just ends up seeming rather perfunctory. The broad swaths are there, but anyone who has experienced deep loss will be looking for particularity and reflection, and find themselves not entirely satisfied.
Sarah Glenn Marsh also takes on the topic of drug abuse, but I get the impression that Marsh hasn’t done her research. The character who experiences it has some hallucinations, but also some nice friends who chain her to a bed, and then she’s functional again, whee! Even if the author is trying to be delicate, this addiction and withdrawal is too pristine. We know she ups her dosage, but we don’t really feel her cravings. We know she is pained by withdrawal, but don’t see her vomiting, sweating, weeping. Marsh does too much telling rather than showing, and since we don’t see the physical toll, the emotional toll is limited.
It’s also just so compressed. Grief leads to a potent addiction, and then intervention, withdrawal and recovery within a few weeks. But it’s so pat that it ends up seeming like this is all a straightforward, totally reasonable process, when in reality it’s anything but.
Actually, the entire book is just a little too compressed. We don’t get a chance for breath from the action, and neither do the characters, meaning that no one takes the time to step back and consider larger issues. There’s the very large issue of whether the dead are worth the potential risk of Shades, and then there are the issues of trust, danger, and romance that characters are constantly reacting to, but rarely acting upon. This makes them seem more foolish than they ought to be, even the minor ones.
The most unfortunate example of this is when the nobles openly turn against the necromancers, which makes very little sense, since they depend utterly on the necromancers to raise them from the dead. There are literally no other alternatives. Why antagonize the people who can decide to leave you dead instead of resurrecting you? Or, even if you suspect them of a plot, why confront them about it directly? The dead don’t seem to be any wiser than the living, and it’s a mystery why the status quo has held for so long. Sure, the king has outlawed change (the exact nature of which is never explicit, since some things, like altering security and promoting people, seems fine), but we never see consequences for violating that. We don’t see suppressed rebellions or detainment of potential escapees.
Perhaps this is a meditation on complacency, but we do see plenty of reasons to despise the status quo. Plague, poverty, inequality–and let’s not underestimate humans’ natural inclination to change. So what exactly is holding people back? How could one king be so beloved that citizens would endure decade after decade of the same thing? I’m not saying that King Wylding isn’t appealing, but we don’t see evidence of such superlative greatness that would justify outlawing change itself.
King Wylding isn’t the villain, though. One of the villains is…well, if you’ve read any of the Sabriel books, particularly Clariel, you will see some similarities. I sighed when I read it. This book doesn’t really want to draw comparisons with Garth Nix, because it will lose.
The denouement and climax are predictable and poorly paced. Also, even though his methods are stupid (wrong too, but mostly stupid), I agree with the villain. Not in a oh-but-he’s-so-hot-and-misunderstood way; in an actual, factual, his-ideas-are-superior way. Odessa decides that he’s mad, but I think he’s insightful. In another story, he’s the hero. Oh, he ruins it by being unnecessarily violent, but I think that was needed to make this even seem like a reasonable fight. And that’s disappointing, because the ideas are in conflict with the execution (pun intended) and the whole thing becomes an emotional muddle, though a readable one.
This is a good effort from Marsh, but I don’t think she’s gone deep enough with her characters or the topics. The world, the ideas, and the motivations are all there, but the execution doesn’t elevate them. Perhaps if we return to this world and see what happens a little further on in time, or long before the era of No Change, we might find some challenges really worth exploring.