Robyn Reviews: Vespertine

‘Vespertine’ is the third young adult fantasy book by Margaret Rogerson, author of ‘An Enchantment of Ravens’ and ‘Sorcery of Thorns‘. Unlike her previous works, ‘Vespertine’ is the start of an intended series – although it works as a standalone, telling a complete and intriguing story. Chronicling the life of a nun who can see spirits, parts are reminiscent of stories like ‘The Raven Boys’ and ‘Ninth House‘, but overall ‘Vespertine’ is a unique and compelling tale set in a creative world with huge potential for the rest of the series.

In Loraille, the dead do not rest, rising as vengeful spirits with an insatiable hunger for the living. Those who can see spirits are bound to become nuns – cleansing the bodies of the deceased so that their spirits can pass on – or soldiers, protecting the masses from the undead threat. Artemisia is training to become a Grey Sister – but when her convent is attacked by possessed soliders, she finds herself awakening an ancient spirit to protect it. The spirit threatens to possess her the moment she drops her guard – but with an unknown threat controlling Loraille’s dead, working with the spirit and becoming a Vespertine might be her only change to save Loraille. As Artemisia travels across Loraille, she and the spirit start to reach an understanding. But the more Artemisia learns – and the closer they become – the more she’s forced to question everything she’s been taught, including whether she’s on the right side.

The worldbuilding is one of the best parts of the book. Loraille is run by a religious order worshipping the Lady and her chosen Saints – seven women who defeated the Revenants, the strongest of the undead spirits, and bound spirits to their will. The Saints are all long dead, but their power lives on in relics – objects containing a bound spirit, allowing its power to be harnessed. Rogerson avoids info-dumping, yet the story is never confusing – the worldbuilding is woven seamlessly into the narrative, with enough revealed to allow understanding yet plenty kept in the dark to maintain a sense of intrigue. Loraille feels European in inspiration, with the Clerisy sharing aspects with the Catholic Church, but there are enough differences to feel fresh. The system of dead spirits and their differing powers is also well crafted – simple in concept, thus easy to understand, but executed with impeccable atmosphere. The overall effect is a spooky book, dark in places, with a perfect combination of mystery and exposition.

Artemisia is a solid main character, but the best part about her is the contrast between her personality and that of the spirit she binds herself to. Artemisia is a survivor. Possessed by a vengeful spirit as a baby, she was rescued by the nuns – but only after her entire family died in mysterious circumstances, leaving Artemisia physically scarred and the rest of her community blaming her for their deaths. As a result, Artemisia is feared and avoided, with few friends and little knowledge of how to interact with others. She’s prickly and stubborn, with a reckless disregard for her own safety – but she’s also caring and loyal, as much as she tries to hide it. The spirit is the first companion Artemisia has ever really had – and whilst neither of them trust the other, the way their relationship grows, driven by mutual loneliness, is incredible to read. Its amazing how Artemisia’s view of herself finally starts to change as the spirit points out how differently she regards herself and others.

Unusually for a young adult fantasy, there’s no romance in this book. There are several characters who, in other books, might have developed into love interests, but Rogerson chooses to instead focus entirely on the underlying plot and Artemisia’s growth and development as an individual. Personally, I loved this – it’s nice seeing a story with the confidence to stand alone without relying on a romantic subplot to add interest, and it never feels necessary. If you’re not a fan of romance, this is definitely the book for you.

Rogerson has mentioned that there will be a few edits to the pose and flow in the final version that haven’t appeared in the advanced copy. As it stands, ‘Vespertine’ is an excellent read but one that doesn’t quite have the magic of ‘Sorcery of Thorns’. It’s hard to pin down exactly what is missing – but it’s possible that with edits that magic will be captured again so I’m excited to read the final version when it publishes.

Overall, ‘Vespertine’ is an intriguing tale about ghosts, survival, and secrets set in a compelling alternative medieval Europe. Recommended for fans of creative young adult and adult fantasy, books without romance, and exceptional character growth.

Thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Simon & Schuster Children’s
Hardback: 5th October 2021

Robyn Reviews: Sorcery of Thorns

Sorcery of Thorns is young adult fantasy at its finest. Elisabeth, an orphan girl raised in one of the Great Libraries of Austermeer, knows two things – books are dangerous, and sorcerers are evil. She wants nothing more than to become a warden, protecting Austermeer from the powerful grimoires contained in her library. However, when she becomes the only witness to an attack on the library, her life gets infinitely more complicated.

Elisabeth makes a fantastic protagonist. She’s smart and determined but also incredibly naïve, jumping to conclusions and regularly acting without thinking. Having been raised in a library, she knows little of the real world and the consequences of that can be hilarious. She’s also one of the few female protagonists I’ve ever seen described as tall – a refreshing change from the tiny, innocent looking protagonists the genre seems to favour. Elisabeth’s friendship with Katrien was lovely, as was her evolving, convoluted relationship with the sorcerer Nathaniel Thorn – her only ally, but also a man who has to be evil – after all, all sorcerers are. However, her best interactions were with Silas, Nathaniel’s enigmatic assistant who’s far more than he initially seems.

Nathaniel contrasts Elisabeth brilliantly. A confident, flamboyant bisexual sorcerer and Austermeer’s most eligible bachelor, Nathaniel saunters through life like a man who has it all – but he’s the only survivor of the Thorn line, a famed family of necromancers responsible for some of the worst crimes in Austermeer’s history. How much of Nathaniel’s personality is authentic and how much is simply to distance himself from that legacy is unclear – but what is clear is that he has a heart of gold and a sense of humour to match. His quips and anecdotes add a much-needed lightness.

This is a young adult fantasy but successfully avoids all the pitfalls of the genre. The romance is slow-building and believable, adding to rather than distracting from the main plot. Elisabeth has aspects of being a ‘Chosen One’ but is definitely the least powerful of the three main characters, so it doesn’t feel like a cop out. The plot has predictable elements but also completely unpredictable ones, with an ending that’s hopeful but not without sacrifice. Yes, there are tropes, but every part feels fresh enough to be highly enjoyable – a credit to Margaret Rogerson’s creativity and writing.

The setting is the highlight of the book – how could a book about magical libraries fail to appeal to bookworms? The idea of dangerous grimoires needing to be locked away and guarded by wardens with swords is excellent. I also like the magic system, with its clear limitations and constraints – there is a price to being a sorcerer after all, and any magic takes time and a great deal of effort.

Overall, this is one of the best examples of young adult fantasy that I’ve read. It takes both familiar tropes and original concepts and combines them into a beautifully readable novel full of likeable, three-dimensional characters and a world you want to live in. Highly recommended.

 

Published by Margaret K. McElderry Books (Simon & Schuster)
Hardback: 13 June 2019
Paperback: 23 July 2020