Ever since conspiracies exploded into the mainstream in America and started ruining lives and families, I have been leery of them in fiction. As with our collective disinterest in dystopia, it’s hard to escape to a world that isn’t, well, much of an escape. And that’s a shame, because high-stakes espionage and the thrill of discovery is one of my favorite things to find in SFF (what can I say? I was raised by The X-Files.) However, I’m happy to find that there is still joy to be had in the subgenre when it’s done right, and The Cage of Dark Hours fits the bill perfectly. This second entry in the Five Penalties trilogy present dark and complex mysteries in a world nested with secrets like a matryoshka, only here, the conspiracies only get bigger as you go deeper.
The first thing you might notice is the pacing, which is faster than the previous book, and wisely so. In The Helm of Midnight we needed the slower, more methodical approach to the central crisis because it was also our introduction into a fairly complicated world. Here, with the background firmly set, it’s good to set off right away at a run. Not only do we have an assassination threat right from the get-go, but we also have serious political instability brewing. There are things happening up close and at a distance, and the minute you take your eye off one of them to focus on the other, it has a tendency to explode.
Protagonist Krona knows all too well what happens if you stop paying attention, but after the bloody events of the first book and the tragic death of her sister, her attention is increasingly drawn to forbidden magics. She will do anything to connect with De-Lia again, even if it means confronting the entities she knows as Thalo puppets, creatures from children’s nightmares.
But the Thalo are not monsters—not all of them, anyway, and the ones who are go about it in entirely human ways. We get a glimpse of their society in The Cage of Dark Hours, and it’s an immediately intriguing counterpoint of gloom and dire obligation to the bright and fanciful world of the Lutador elite, which Lostetter also puts on display. The contrast between Thalo Child, who has duties far beyond his years, and Mandip, whose privileges far outstrip his duties, makes for a very effective narrative structure. They give us fresh eyes to view the parts of Lutador we already know, and also introduce us to very different places than Krona would manage to visit on her own.
There are some absolutely fantastic set pieces, including a vault made of glass and protected by glass golems and a secret fortress carved into a mountain. Add to that the costumes—an antiquated wedding suit, a ball gown made of stained glass, the titular cage—and you have a book that’s just begging to be made into prestige TV. The visual sensibilities are not just strong, but innovative: this has some of the most unique magic and worldbuilding I’ve seen in recent years.
What Works: the settings, the action, the layers of mystery
What Doesn’t: occasional over-explanation
Recommended Listening: the soundtrack from Fellowship of the Ring, but exclusively that bit from when the Uruk-hai are pursuing the Fellowship along the river (just the blaring horns and then DOOM-doom-doom-doom, on loop)
Part of the realism also comes from Lostetter’s ongoing commitment to establishing and refining the motivations of her antagonists. In The Helm of Midnight, serial killerCharbon could have been a moustache-twirling villain, but instead he had real questions and real desire to serve the greater good. Here in The Cage of Dark Hours, members of the cabal fear technological and magical progress, so much so that they would rather rip power from infants and infants from their families than allow too much innovation. Their methods are awful to behold, but we don’t fully grasp the extent of the cataclysm that gave them this fear. Whether certain types of goodness can truly be greater, and whether the ends justify the means to achieve them, are the questions Lostetter cares about, which I find far more interesting than simply describing good and evil. It makes for very compelling—and very dark—storytelling.
There are, however, exciting positives to counterbalance all the horror. In this world, there are five grammatical genders reflecting (at least) five lived genders, and all are completely accepted, as are relationships between any consenting adults. All participate equally, if with different roles, in religion and the sacred, as well as in politics or any other chosen field. It’s just such a relief to read books like this sometimes, the ones that don’t belabor the sad realities here on earth and really embrace the possibilities of the speculative in the positive direction as well as the negative. It also creates moments of joy and humor to alleviate the suffering most of the characters must endure.
There is some telling-not-showing when it comes to laying out the characters’ inner workings, and I could have done with fewer explicit statements of grief or anxiety. The sadness and guilt—and poignancy thereof—was already clear from the characters’ actions. It didn’t need to be hammered home. Lostetter maintains her usual high standard of writing action, and I hope she grows to trust herself more when it comes to small moments of introspection.
Even expecting some dramatic turns I was shocked by the ending, which had revelations and reveals flying fast and heavy for the last 10% of the book. It was a wild ride that left me breathless for the concluding volume, which sadly is a ways off. On the plus side, though, it may just give me a chance to re-read both books once time (or Time?) has blunted some of the details, and enjoy them all over again.