The review I was drafting in my head a quarter of the way into Nevernight bears very little resemblance to the review I’m writing having finished it. After a couple of chapters, I wasn’t feeling it and, having checked on Goodreads, I discovered I wasn’t alone. But, of all my negative qualities (and there are a lot), being a quitter isn’t one of them and I’m glad about that because it was pretty awesome in the end.
The problem with Nevernight’s early chapters is largely that they are quite impenetrable; dense with description, detail-heavy and featuring a number of footnotes which seems excessive, it was hard to get into. To begin with, the narrative switches between Mia Corvere’s past and present; in the former, she witnesses the destruction of her family, while in the latter, she’s hellbent on revenge through joining a school for assassins. Put like that, it seems a lot more straightforward than it appeared when I was reading it. (I should probably also point out that I was reading a couple of chapters a night just before going to sleep, which definitely wasn’t the best way to experience this book).
Mia has to overcome a number of obstacles in order to join the Red Church, but, once she’s there, the plot really gets going and I found it all very exciting. Gruesome, but exciting. The Red Church is a kind of psychotic Hogwarts; if you can imagine a Hogwarts in which Snape was genuinely trying to kill everyone in Potions and the scariest person there was the school nurse, you’re pretty much there. The apprentices of the Church compete in some crazy challenges (those of them who don’t die in the process, anyway), in a trope which is very familiar but still enthralling. The idea of the Red Church is bound up with the slightly confusing religious set-up of Nevernight; essentially, I think there’s a god of light and a goddess of dark and people who follow the goddess are heretics, or something. The novel takes its title from the conceit that there are three suns in this odd version of early modern Italy (a version where everyone swears like a top-level footballer), so it’s hardly ever night. I thought this aspect was a bit underdeveloped; the title gave me the impression that the idea of ‘nevernight’ would be central, but it isn’t really. I have some questions though; for example, if it was never night, wouldn’t everyone go insane quite quickly? Anyway, it’s a cool idea which will perhaps be developed more in the rest of the trilogy.
Nevernight is really violent – like, Tarantino-levels of blood and gore – and features a really long description of oral sex; for these reasons, I don’t know how far it can really be seen as YA. In fairness, the very first sentence of the novel is “people often shit themselves when they die, did you know that?” which gives a pretty clear indication of the level of detail to be provided in describing even the most taboo of subjects. There’s nothing chaste or subtle about Nevernight, but its brashness is what sets it apart from the fantasy series it might be compared with; Throne of Glass, for example, features a similarly ruthless yet bookish young, female assassin and, in a move familiar to everyone on the planet, Mia appears to own what could be described as an invisibility cloak, while the set-up of the Red Church reminded me of the similarly psychotic school in Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes. I don’t mean to suggest that Nevernight is particularly derivative of these other books, but there are touchstones here for the YA fantasy reader.
Jay Kristoff looks and Tweets like a rock star, and Nevernight shows that he writes like one too. The prologue that introduces us all to the excretions of the dead also tells us “your narrator shares no such restraint,” so it’s not like the reader isn’t warned of what will follow. The best rock stars push the boundaries, perhaps even producing things which are hard to listen to – think Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, which showed an artist doing whatever the fuck he wanted just because he could, or the more bombastic songs of Led Zeppelin, showing off how good they were just because they could too – and I enjoyed that kind of cocksure confidence that runs through Nevernight. It’s definitely worth sticking with and now I want the second book in the series. Seriously, now.