Many years ago, magician Adrien was an aspiring healer at the Chirurgeonate medical complex in Astrum. Unfortunately, he ended up doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. In other words, he was using his magic to heal patients’ minds, but ended up turning them into mere husks of humans. He and all the other magicians were tried for the heinous crime of witchcraft–or the use of magic to harm people. Although Adrien was acquitted, his reputation has suffered from it and he has since removed himself entirely from the practice of healing. Instead, he serves as a professor at the Pharmakeia school where he helps train new magicians to use their powers for good. But lately, Adrien notices two strange things. First, there has been an influx of patients presenting to the Chirurgeonate with the same symptoms Adrien saw in his own patients. Second, the Vigil, Astrum’s military body widely known to hate magicians on principle, has taken up residence in the Pharmakeia.
Gennady Richter is a young Vigil lieutenant. Like all Vigil, Gennady’s only real human connections are to the fellow soldiers in his unit. Too bad no one in Gennady’s unit seems to like the taciturn young man much, up to and including his commanding officer who is, all things considered, the closest thing Gennady ever had to a father. Perhaps Gennady never expected kindness. Certainly, the most he ever hoped for, the most he ever got, was resigned tolerance.
Adrien reacts to Gennady’s cold aloofness like all the others. That is until both Gennady and Adrien realize that those new patients in the Chirurgeonate are not merely ill, they’re cursed. Together, they begin to follow the rumor and uncover an unthinkable plot: Vigil and magicians cooperating in a symbiotic relationship for the sake of power. Both men grudgingly learn to set aside their differences to help the cursed and stop the power mongering. However, danger mounts on all sides. The corruption in both of their worlds runs farther, faster, and deeper than either of them can imagine. They will have to rely on tenuous connections and untested trust if they hope to survive the ordeal.
Cursebreakers is a high fantasy-like thriller set far in the future, while still retaining a timelessly antique feel. It takes place primarily at the school where Adrien teaches, with detours to the Vigil home base, Adrien’s home, and a handful of other locales. The world is richly described and author Nakamura fully commits to creating an immersive experience. This works really well creating a lush environment for the characters, and pleasing visual motifs. Most of the time, I loved how new terms were used to describe familiar concepts. For example, the word “ambric” seems to refer to an Edison-style lightbulb. There were times, however, where this commitment got in the way of the storytelling a little bit. For example, Oktidy. I spent the first several pages thinking this was a place to go, only to realize it was a day of the week. Imagine my surprise when I finally realized the accompanying preposition was actually “on Oktidy” rather than “in Oktidy.” I spent a few pages confused about if the MCs were going some PLACE or going some TIME.
For the romance fans, I must point out that this story is not a romance. There is a super strong unrequited love trope between Adrien and his best friend. I initially held out hope that these two would somehow come together romantically. That hope stayed with me throughout most of the book, but how enthusiastic I was about it changed as the nature of Adrien and his friend’s connection developed on page and with the introduction of Gennady.
Adrien and Gennady are like oil and water; they can make a fantastic combination while still being unable to completely mix. When Adrien’s unrequited feelings for his best friend were still a fresh plot point, Gennady came on the scene and gave me a flare of hope that perhaps these two would become lovers. After a good long while of their oil and water dynamic, I started to realize they had more of an age gap kind of friendship with a kind of grumpy/sunshine mixed in. Even with romance off the table, I still really enjoyed watching the relationship between these two take shape and grow.
At its core, this book feels like a thriller more than anything else. I thought it was interesting to have Adrien as our narrator. He was diagnosed as an akratic twenty years ago (note: I’m not sure what the equivalent is in modern English, but there are explicit mentions of his behaving manic and depressive, but also of having delusions or hallucinations) and that played so painfully well into his closest friends assuming Adrien’s insistence that the Vigil and the magicians were pairing-up for evil were the ravings of a delusional akratic. The vicarious frustration and the resignation he ultimately displays at this point in the story was superb. Similarly, Adrien struggles to come to terms with the way his mind works— especially when it feels like his own mind is taken over by what he calls the daimon, which is something like a sinister alter ego. Throughout the course of the book, Adrien feels like he is always at risk of losing himself to this internal daimon and that if that were to happen, he would be well and truly lost. This aspect of the story creates a little bit of a growth arc for our main character, and resolves with a happy for now kind of ending.
Overall, Cursebreakers was a very engrossing read. The story is immersive and the first person narration creates a very consistent, complex picture for readers to enjoy. There are times when the story feels a little slow because of all the different moving pieces and some unfamiliar names for unexpected things (days of the week, taxis, etc.). Nevertheless, with the personal drama in Adrien‘s life, and the moral questions raised by the crime of witchcraft versus the order of the world itself potentially realigning keep the story interesting. If you like complex stories, detailed plots, and strong queer characters that exist for something other than coupling up, I think you’ll find a lot to enjoy in this book.