I wasn't sure what to expect from this prequel novella in the Downside series. I knew it would feature a young Chess, just getting started in the Church. I knew she would be untried and I knew she would already be damaged by her horrible childhood. What I didn't expect was how much she would be colored by hope; or how sad it would be to know what her future would hold.
Basically, the story follows Chess on her first real training mission. She's been studying with the Church for two years, but this her first foray out into the field. She must work with members of the Black Squad to solve a string of seemingly unrelated ghost-murders. The plot is interesting enough, but where I was affected was in how Chess was portrayed. She's so... earnest.
I've never had an overabundance of patience with Chess or her self-destructive behavior. But here, she is somehow both naive and jaded. She carries both hope and despair. And we see these defining moments in her life. The groundwork for the ill-fated tryst with Agnew Doyle we hear about in Unholy Ghosts. The first tendrils of a relationship with Elder Griffen. The feelings of communion with Downside. That first Cept. Her first glimpse of Terrible. It's a lot to take in. It makes me hurt for her. It makes me more sympathetic to where she ends up. And for that Stacia Kane is brilliant.
All that being said, I don't think this is a story for new readers. It's for fans who already think they know Chess, to show us just how much we didn't know. It's an important part of the Downside world, but it doesn't have the single most compelling element of the novels, and that's Terrible. He is the heart of the series for me, and his absence was felt.
One day, maybe, he'll get a novella of his own. A girl can hope, right?