Thorn was just trying to find his outlaw father when he got caught by slavers and was sold to executioner Tyburn of House Shadow. Lilith Shadow was never supposed to rule Gehenna, but then her family was killed.
I picked this one up because of this review. Initially this series didn’t strike me as particularly diverse from reading the blurb, but the author’s commentary on the Middle Eastern inspiration as well as an #ownvoice Muslim reviewer’s thoughts quickly confirmed that this was a trilogy I wanted to read.
The white-guy-being a slave part made me nervous, but it was a small part of the overall story and not poorly done. I did also wish for the House of Shadow to have more skin tone variety, but some information about House Solar covered that to my satisfaction.
Khan invests heavily in three similarly-aged characters, but only two have viewpoints in this book, which was so smart. While K’leef is a main part of the trio and the plot, his motivations and actions ultimately have to be deduced, and the novel manages to be balanced. What I didn’t love, even though I understood it, is the whole arranged-child-marriage thing. Thankfully, Lilly was not afraid to repeatedly call out how ludicrous it was and exercise her own agency to change her situation (not always for the better).
The magic system is fairly complex, so a good deal of this first book had to go towards introducing readers to the workings of not just the magic, but also the political systems that work around the various types of magic. And also how daily life works in this world and how it is influenced by both politics and magic.
Khan does a good job of parceling out all this information without doing infodumps. He uses situations, like when Thorn angers the wrong noble and the other boys point out that he’s the outsider and they need to stay out of trouble. Of course, Thorn’s isolation combined with hidden heritage make him a good target for Lily’s friendship.
Lily finds that unexpected leadership comes with many more headaches and sorrows than desired. Her arc was all I could have desired, and I especially appreciated that Khan allowed her and Thorn (and K’leef) to be equal partners. Finding out that the character was inspired by Malala Yousafzai made so much sense.
The book is divided into three sections based on the location. Most is set at Castle Gloom, with the first and last sixth in another place. Chapters are kept short and the plot is always moving even when the characters are pinned down, to the very last page! Regular full page artwork is interspersed, which is mostly excellent with a few duds. Gehenna gets a full map with lots of interesting tidbits that don’t come in to this story, and I always appreciate that in a fantasy novel. This was still middle grade, but the plot was less MG-ish than most, which made it far more interesting to an adult fantasy fan.
The interior pages made a little flipbook of a bat flying. The book as a whole had a interesting design and I appreciated that the letterer and cover designer got cover billing, even if they and the artist, were relegated to the back cover. It has a sturdy matte cover and acceptable pages and binding, which has me perplexed – Disney Hyperion is so inconsistent with paperback quality! I ended up buying a used softcover copy of this first book for expediency and cost efficiency, but maybe I’ll look at new for the others.
Be forewarned that this novel contains significant deaths including murder, zombies vampires and other undead, grave-robbing, slavery, poaching, starvation, kidnapping, attempted forced child marriage, loss of parents, burning, petty thievery, bullying, beatings, betrayal, political maneuverings, a menagerie, and lots of bats. That sounds really dark, doesn’t it? But it’s also a beautiful story about friendship and loyalty and accepting yourself no matter how strange, with serious-yet-campy goth trappings and lots of magic.
Yes, this had more death and gloom than I remember middle schoolers wanting in a fantasy novel. It’s not horror exactly, despite all the murders and zombies and so on. Those are all tied up in the magic and politics of this fantasy world. I think this would work well for kids who are into the School of Good and Evil series, or fans of Hoodoo. Simply because of said murders and horror trappings (plus very mild romance) I’d put this at the upper end of MG or a high-low read for teens.
Recommended for mature MG and up.