When seventeen-year-old Nedra Brysstain leaves her home in the rural, northern territories of Lunar Island to attend the prestigious Yugen Academy, she has only one goal in mind: learn the trade of medicinal alchemy. A scholarship student matriculating with the children of Lunar Island’s wealthiest and most powerful families, Nedra doesn’t quite fit in with the other kids at Yugen, who all look down on her.
All, except for Greggori “Grey” Astor. Grey is immediately taken by the brilliant and stubborn Nedra, who he notices is especially invested in her studies. And that’s for a good reason: a deadly plague has been sweeping through the North, and it’s making its way toward the cities. With her family’s life–and the lives of all of Lunar Island’s citizens–on the line, Nedra is determined to find a cure for the plague.
Grey and Nedra continue to grow closer, but as the sickness spreads and the body count rises, Nedra becomes desperate to find a cure. Soon, she finds herself diving into alchemy’s most dangerous corners–and when she turns to the most forbidden practice of all, necromancy, even Grey might not be able to pull her from the darkness.
It’s so interesting to me how everyone sleeps differently. Some people sleep on their side, some people sleep on their back and I’ve noticed that A LOT OF Y’ALL ARE STILL SLEEPING ON THIS BOOK.
So, what’s this book about?
Nedra Brysstain earns a scholarship to Yugen Academy, which also earns her many enemies, especially her rival classmates who think that a poor girl from a rural village should not be admitted to such a place of prestige. In Yugen, Nedra is tutored by the enigmatic Master Ostrum who helps her hone the craft of medicinal alchemy. But when an epidemic seems to only ravage the poor, and the emperor and those in power appear to worry that letting their names onto their tongues would leave them sick as well, Nedra’s responsibility is bigger, and hard to harness. Her efforts to heal the sick go awry and with the enormity of the plague looming over everyone’s heads, the twisting, growing certainty that only necromancy could be the cure wedges itself inside Nedra. Her horror deepens, when her loved ones fall ill, and it’s a new layer added to the grief of this doom.
Taunted with phantoms of the dead, Nedra’s anger rose and rose. This was loss and grief, and it tore something open inside her.
“They didn’t ask for life, they asked for more time.” She paused. “If love will not stop for death, time should.”
If you want something dark, the kind of story that makes you question your morals, your tastes, your reality, and refuses to allow you any of the polite fictions and unspoken truths that will keep you comfortable and safe, then this is the book for you.
Granted, it was all fun and games during the first half. No matter how twisted and gritty things have gotten then, that was only a guttering candle to the steady flame of viciousness in the second half. It’s like a hundred slivers of darkness breaking apart and re-forming and siphoning themselves into a huge typhoon. I fell headlong into the story, and at times, I hardly knew if it was Nedra’s anguish or my own.
This is a darkly twisted tale about a heroine’s journey into villainy, a story that floods you with the truth of how everything you mean well can twist and become something else when you’re not looking. Everything has an edge if you know to watch for it. The author draws the reader’s into Nedra’s journey, a transformative fog that could turn one either into a hero or a monster, with such intensity that her moral struggle becomes tangibly real, even rational. There’s a deep gorge that marks where her world split and the foundations tore apart—when Nedra was still a girl filled with hope who volunteered at the hospital and sought anything torn that she could mend, and not what she’d later become.
Nedra’s journey is hard, and filled with pain, violence, and grit, and I oftentimes struggled to reconcile what I thought I knew of her with what I was reading before me, but I can think of no one better to root for.
That’s the thing. My favorite kind of villains and anti-heroes are the ones you can understand. You don’t necessarily agree with them and you know that what they’ve done in the aftermath could never be shriven. You fear them because you realize that there is no darkness anyone could send them to rival what they’d endured already. You want to feel scorn for them for being so ruthless, but you know too much to ever scorn them. The scariest type of monsters are the ones that seem so human and so familiar.
Nedra would not just uproot the world for her loved ones, but tear it, burn it, do any evil she could to keep them safe. She reached forth with all the fine control that the world has cheated and backstabbed and brutalized out of her, and the dark things within her took wings. Her heart splintered into pieces and reclaimed itself into something else—a tangle of grief and despair and so much fury. She’d lost the ability to see herself through her own eyes and this was the new mirror in which she knew herself: hero, monster, something far worse, maybe neither. Who might Nedra be if she hadn’t borne that burden? Who would she become if it was gone?
Another thing I relished in this book is how it felt utterly satisfying to see a heroine willing to risk newfound romance to stand up for what she believes in. The book alternates between Nedra’s point of view and Greggori “Grey” Astor’s, one of Nedra’s classmates whom she falls in love with. Grey’s POVs were a gray space filled with nothing. He was handsome and rich and raised with the privilege of not being accustomed to fear. Everything he chose to deflect with “it will get better” talks, Nedra faced without flinching. And she comes to realize that she could no longer retreat into her old, comfortable belief in his love and faith. He tells her “if you choose necromancy…I will not follow you into that darkness”, to which she answers, “Oh Grey, what do you know of darkness?” and that was such a power move.
Overall, this was a very compelling anti-hero story and I eagerly await seeing Nedra’s journey’s culmination in the next chapter of the series!