June 19, 2019
Preface: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
This book was a joy to read - and I don't say that about a lot of these books I get to review.
It takes place in a world where mystical creatures - animals and humanoids with their own magical powers and human-level intelligence - abound. Some of these mystical creatures must "bond" with humans in order to reach adulthood and come into their full power. The human halves of these pairings become arcanists, and gain magical powers of their own.
Our hero is an outcast in his hometown, because of his criminal parents. He is excluded from the classes necessary to help him earn the favor of the phoenixes born in his village - his only chance to become an arcanist. However, unwilling to let others dictate his fate, he takes matters into his own hands and finds a creature to bond with.
There's so much good to say about this book. The characters are varied and engaging. Initially, some seem shallow - the bully character is a stand-out - but they become more filled-in throughout the story (the bully, for example, seems to have a crush on the main character's adopted sister, and has moments of kindness and honor). My personal favorite is the little nerd with the celestial whelk. He's so good-hearted and sweet, but also so awkward.
The mystical creatures are also amazing. Instead of your usual dragon/phoenix/griffin stuff, the book really reaches out to all sorts of obscure critters, and even makes some up along the way, which keeps things engaging and fresh. The creatures themselves have distinct personalities, motives, etc., and it's interesting to see how they compliment their partners.
Our hero might be the weakest of these characters, since he falls into a lot of standard hero tropes, but he's still interesting in his own right. He's active, a do-er, not a passive character things happen to. He seizes the chance to earn a phoenix. When that doesn't work, he enters a swamp in search of another creature. He stands up to a plague-ridden beast. He investigates his new partner's claims about his hero, Ruma. He collaborates with the rest of the group to save the day. The only thing I didn't like was how he could be a bit hard-headed about asking questions - it takes him an embarrassingly long time to ask his new partner about the plague or his former master or any of that stuff. But that's mostly a plot contrivance.
The plot is really interesting. The summary sets up the villain to be the main character's hero, Ruma, but the narrative casts this into doubt with all sorts of details, and really makes you question if he's guilty, or if others are involved. All we have to go on is an overheard voice and storm powers...but another character's partner is a mimic, who can turn into anything. Then there's another character with phoenix feathers she shouldn't have, another who is investigating the plague....Eventually we get enough breadcrumbs that we can unravel the mystery, but honestly the plot clips along so quickly that you can just ride it out if you so choose.
There is another slightly sticky point - the book seems aimed at a YA audience. However, there is some body horror, stemming from a plague affecting the mystical creatures in this world. The plague's physical effects are genuinely disturbing and gory, but the emotional effects are also haunting (I love how the author expressed the weirdness of the affected creatures' dialogue with a mixture of italics and ellipses). I found myself thinking about it a long time after I finished the book. In my opinion, it's great, but a younger audience might not be able to handle it. That's up to the reader's discretion.
My other small complaint is that the story stops almost immediately after the climax. There's literally just a small wrap-up scene, and then we're at the end. I would have liked more discussion amongst the characters about what happened, giving them time to digest what they had to do and where they're going next, especially the titular knightmare. It feels kinda rushed. But that's just my personal preference.
Overall, this book is a lot of fun. It's got an interesting world, lovely characters, vivid scenes, and interesting set-pieces. I'm really, really eager for more books following these characters - I hope the author delivers!!