A Druid like her mother, born of a lineage of powerful, magical women, Arnaka has never truly known suffering. When she was a child she was given a friend, a girl only a few years older than she, a girl with no name, and they loved each other as friends do. Arnaka didn’t know why Girl’s mother cried, why Girl’s family hated her, she only knew that they did. It wasn’t until she was older that Arnaka learned the truth: When Arnaka came of age, Girl would be sacrificed upon the Druid’s altar, her soul taken and forced into magical slavery so that Arnaka could use true magic. Arnaka could not stop Girl from dying, but she could make her a promise. Arnaka swore to Girl that she would be the last child sacrificed by the Druids.
There are no books in the great library that can tell Arnaka how to end magic, no lesson in her classes that give her a clue about how to thwart her mother, and no convenient sign saying “this way to the answer.” It isn’t until her servant — a foolish girl from the world below — is thrown into the dungeons that Arnie is able to throw off her own complacency and finally take a step. That first step takes her from the beauty of the Druid’s airy home to the shadowed and dangerous underworld where she will find the strength keep moving forward until her walk becomes a run, and Arnie finds a way to bring balance to a broken world.
I’m going to gush, just a little bit, about this book. I’m really not a giant fan of post-apocalyptic books, but somehow this one gave me a world covered in the dazzling glitter of fantasy and beautifully complex villains with understandable and sympathetic motives (not forgivable, just understandable), along with a tightly woven plot and snarkily lovely characters, and it just hit all the right notes for me. There are intimations of sexual violence, but nothing is shown; however, we are given a few scenes of actual violence where people are stabbed, bludgeoned, and beaten. It’s not overly graphic, but if scenes of a woman being beaten, tied up, and threatened with abuse are triggering for you, then read with caution.
Arnaka — Arnie — was “born with lights in her hands.” It was a sign to her mother and the Druids that she was born to be a great power, and her mother has groomed her to be an obedient, brilliant daughter. If it hadn’t been for Hannah, the common girl she was allowed to play with as a child, her mother’s plans might have worked. But Hannah and her family showed her the true price of Druidic magic; they showed her how the common people were treated and tormented, how they suffered beneath the heavy hand of the Druids. Arnie, being sensitive (and half in love with Hannah), rebelled. Or tried to. But there was no escape for her, and none for Hannah. Not then. Now, though, Arnie is on a quest to free Hannah.
Tamlin is a powerful mage in her own right, a Soulkeeper of the Underworld, though her magic is different from Arnie’s. She has lived all her life hating the Druids, and Arnie — with the enslaved soul of a person hovering over her shoulder — is a symbol of everything she hates. It doesn’t help that Arnie sets her mother’s grave on fire. It hurts even worse when Tam’s own people accept Arnie as one of the Soulkeepers, even when she gives them the ultimatum: Arnie or me.
The two of them start off at such terrible odds that Vegas wouldn’t bet on them. Somehow, though, with some help, the two of them find a way to work together. It isn’t easy and it isn’t quick, and by the time they’ve reached an understanding, there are some amusing misunderstandings between them. Tam is jealous of Arnie’s closeness with a servant girl, and Arnie is jealous of Tam’s closeness with Juscar — her childhood friend and a soldier in the Underworld army. When they do manage to finally realize what they feel for each other, there’s the slight inconvenience of Arnie’s brother coming to capture her and drag her home.
Tam and Arnie have some beautiful moments, both when they hate each other, and then when they realize they have feelings for one another. Tam, again and again, finds a way to save Arnie (I loved when Arnie shouted at Tam to “sword him!”) but it’s never held against Arnie. She wasn’t raised to be a physical fighter; she’s a thinker, and the source of magic she was trained all her life to use — Hannah’s soul — is the one magic she will never use again. Her friends know she’s handicapped, and even when they’re near death or failure, not once do they ask her to use her magic to save them.
As much as I liked watching Tam and Arnie get closer together, I honestly loved Arnie’s interactions with the villains of the story. Arnie’s mother, especially, gains depth and character as the story goes on. She’s never pleasant, but her motives are made clear and you can both understand where she’s coming from as well as hate her for doing what she’s done. Escan, her older brother, is more nuanced than the mere bully and thug. You can see his pain and suffering — both because he is a son and thus his mother does not love him and because the women in his life, all of them, chose Arnie over him — but that isn’t to say either he or his mother can be redeemed. The relationships between them are beautifully fraught and tangled as Arnaka wants her mother’s love even as she despises the person she is, and even wants her brother back, the young man he was before he grew up and grew away from her.
As much as I liked Arnie, I almost liked the idea of her, more. Her favorite tutor calls her a “student of disagreement,” and we see it reflected not in Arnie’s actions, but in the reactions of others. There are a few scenes where she’s acting slightly bratty, but being treated as if she’s the most astonishing rebel ever born. Part of that may be personal bias, and the moments of two-dimensionality were few and far between.
The first third of the book has quite a few flashbacks every other chapter or so, as we see Arnie’s childhood with Hannah and the growing realization of what will happen to her friend. I don’t mind the lack of linear story-telling, but the pacing felt languid in the flashbacks, and then rushed when we returned to the present day with days and weeks passing in between chapters. The worldbuilding was a little off-kilter for me, as well. The magic system was handled so well, but the setting outside of magic was left very vague. In the floating palace there is this idea of Druid women being under the thumb of a male society that both infantilizes them and derides them, and it had a great deal of promise, but it showed up in spurts — most often when it was needed to remind us why Escan grew up to be the man he was. Trials are held, but I still don’t know by what authority the judges gave their verdict. Were their lords and kings? Or just … men and judges? But these are all nit-picks.
I loved this book. The writing is good, the plot is both simple to follow and yet lushly elaborated upon. Arnie is clumsy (a “trait” I hate), but it continues throughout the book so much so that her friends know to expect it and even mock her gently for it. Tam has her own personality and life outside of Arnie, and the two of them pair up so well that it made their acknowledgment of their feelings for one another feel so sweet and genuine. A side character’s asexuality is briefly mentioned and works well with her character, and with the role she plays both in the story and the culture. Most of the cast are people of color, and I loved how Arnie saw beauty in every person (even her brother and sister.) Please, if you love fantasy, magic, and kick-ass women, read this book.