I have to admit that this is a difficult review to write. I did not enjoy this book, but I know a lot of people did. Everything about this book should have been a total win for me, too.
I enjoyed the promise of experiencing an alternate 19th Century Paris with a magical twist. In this world, science exists alongside “forging”, an ability some people possess that allows them to have an affinity for an element with which they can create terrible and/or beautiful things. The skill of forging has a mythical background to it that I found unique and intriguing.
The characters’ backgrounds also sounded like a huge plus to me. I am so here for a group as diverse as this one. We are introduced to a cast of talented, lost souls who find themselves and each other through their adventures, struggles, and developing camaraderie. Their determination and friendship made me long for a mini-comic series in which the crew has a hoard of adventures and narrow-scrapes that they continually laugh about after the fact.
“This is nothing we haven’t seen before,” tried Séverin cheerfully. “Remember that underwater Isis temple?”
“Distinctly,” said Enrique. “You said there wouldn’t be any sharks.”
“Right. Just mechanical leviathans with dorsal fins,” said Enrique. “Forgive me.”
“Apology accepted,” said Séverin, inclining his head.
But then… Suddenly the goals and motivations of each character, after oh-so-slowly revealing them to the reader, including their strengths and beautiful weaknesses, felt insignificant to the conclusion of the story. Zophia became insecure where she was bold, Laila vulnerable instead of determined, Séverin malicious instead of conniving. The twist was so drastic that to me, the ending felt UNTRUE.
Séverin, our main protagonist, has a tragic past, with a not-present father who forced him to remain distant from his Algerian mother until they both died, leaving Severin to be disowned by the Order and shunned. He is the man who brought the whole group together and orchestrated their adventures, but at the end he behaved so callously and selfishly that I can only presume he valued his own pain over the wellbeing of his friends and their future together as a team.
The death of the boy he referred to throughout the whole book as his “brother” was warped into solely being about Séverin’s pain- Séverin’s fault – Séverin’s to mourn- Oh, sorry, not mourn- avenge. When Laila tries to confront him about it and (somewhat foolishly) reaches out to him romantically he shuts her down in the most cruel, most harmful fashion he could possibly think of- by calling her “not real”. Because his pain, their pain, the death of his “brother” is meant to exist in the world solely so Séverin remains the “underdog”- the beat-down, underappreciated prodigal of the House of Vanthe who really is just a brutish bully who likes to lord his importance and intelligence over the highly-talented group of people who think they are his friends. But they’re not. The’re just his audience.
I suppose one could argue this is just reflecting the dark sides of the characters’ personalities but I disagree. I think the characters made decisions they would not have made otherwise simply to make the plot bend, tip forward, and cascade into a hopeful sequel.
Unfortunately, it lost me at that bend in this metaphorical river.
Zophia was probably my favorite- beautiful, determined, clever, a loner, strong, doesn’t quite get people but loves and helps them anyway, determined to forge her own path into a world she finds difficult to navigate- but again, does it anyway. Her Jewish heritage adds an interesting mix to the group.
Laila- beautiful, graceful, a lost soul looking for truth. Her heritage was Indian and it. Was. De. Light. Ful. She’s on a quest to save her own life, but will always put her friends first.
Enrique- His mixed Filipino heritage closely related to my own mixed heritage and I loved, just loved, the small moments when he gave in to dwelling on his place in the world- because don’t we all? And isn’t it so much easier to dwell on it when it’s written plain on your face, when you look different from everyone else around you? Enrique has come to terms with his bi-sexuality and is open to affection and returns it honestly. His sense of humor and his relationships with the other characters, romantic and not, were a driving force of the story for me, and I found myself wondering “How would Enrique save his friends at the last second this time?”
Hypnos is probably my new best friend. I also wanted to smack the crap out of him most of the time, but you know- with love. He was brilliant, and all the things that tickle my sense of humor- silly, sassy, extravagant, also with mixed heritage- this time Martiniquais and French. Half the time, I was sure he would betray the group but instead he pulled through for them, and I loved it.
I believe I have already mentioned Séverin.
Lastly, Tristan- the loyal but underdeveloped friend/brother to Séverin who really served as an excuse for Séverin to behave the way he does. He is a dark, quiet, lonely character- but that’s what I loved about him, and unfortunately we get to see him the least out of all the characters. His role as a troubled, almost-broken, protective brother was diminished to that of the sidekick who gets told to shut up whenever he brings up something the group should probably worry about. Unfortunately, his anger was misdirected but he was also typically right. I would like to have seen more from Tristan, particularly his struggles with mental health, but his role as Séverin’s shadow took precedence instead in order to drive the plot forward.
The heritage of all the characters was acknowledged and respected but treated within their little group as just another part of their backgrounds, which was delightfully refreshing and NORMAL. Any racial discrimination came from outside the group, like when Laila is mistaken as Zophia’s maid by a police officer who did nothing but take a single look at them and make that assumption. It was done so seamlessly that it was actually jarring, and took me a moment to remember that the officer would assume that Laila was the maid because of the color of her skin. I can only hope other people felt the same bewilderment, because that is what it feels like in life- a tiny, but jarring moment in time.
Each character in this book was presented as unique, beautiful, strong and weak in their own ways, talented, determined, and they shared a solidarity I could get behind. But the actual execution of their characters fell flat for me, and didn’t match what I was expecting. For example, the ages of most of the main characters are stated but to me it didn’t match up to how they acted. It felt like another example of how I am told one thing to start with but then shown another thing entirely when the story moved forward.
I’m debating on the rating of this book as I write this. It had a few great moments, but overall fell flat for me. I never felt fully invested in the plot, but the writing was beautiful and the characters were fun… until they weren’t. So… 2 stars from me.