This book is starting to get a lot of award buzz after being basically invisible for a while. I can understand why. The writing is superb. The characters are very human and relatable. The worldbuilding is detailed without getting in the way of the story. The magic system is original and the cultures, though faintly recognizable, are really solid on their own.
It’s a mystery novel set in a sort-of early twentieth century fantasy setting. Meaning there are cars, but the cities are lit with gaslights and there are definitely no airplanes (at least at first). The story is set in Bulikov, erstwhile capital of the formerly great Continent, which is vaguely Russian in character. The Continentals used to rule the world, because they were the only people who worshiped the divinities, who in this case are more demi-god than god, and act much more like the augmented humans in Greek myths than any convincing religious system. The main characters are more remarkable for deviating from physical norm (Shara is short, plain, and wears very thick glasses and Sigrud is a giant, literally), which is a pleasant change of pace from the usual fare in fantasy. The story unfolds at a steady pace throughout, as one mystery leads to others, most of which center around the question: how were the gods killed and are they really dead?
It’s very well written and plotted to perfection. No loose ends, and a real sense of menace and resolution at the end.
So why three stars only? Because it’s all veneer. The questions regarding the gods’ role in the world could have been fascinating. But nothing in this book exists to give the reader any input into how the “big questions” can be answered. It’s all style, with absolutely no substance. When we actually find out who the gods are and how they relate to their human worshipers, I almost wanted to laugh. Bennet set himself up with a perfect way to really comment on questions that have bothered humanity for thousands of years. But he neatly sidesteps everything, and the curtain falls. It’s all been a play, after all!
Too bad, because it really had promise.