After my first reading, I decided it was essentially a darker version of the Black Magician trilogy, except better as I didn’t actually enjoy the Black Magician trilogy.
Having just completed my second reading, I’ve now decided that I really can’t compare it to anything because I just find it so wonderfully unique. Sure, comparisons with the Black Magician trilogy can still be drawn: there’s the special young girl (who’s slightly more special than the other special people) who is taken (against her will) to a place to develop her powers and is mentored by a dark and handsome stranger who shows a particular interest in her when he cares for no one else. But to be entirely fair, that’s kind of a common premise in YA fantasy anyway, and that’s really where the similarities end.
Paige Mahoney is a clairvoyant living in a futuristic, alternate-universe-y London. Clairvoyants are considered unnatural and highly dangerous, and Paige is potentially the most unnatural and dangerous of them all. She’s a Dreamwalker, the only one in existence (that we know of), and she has the ability to dislocate her spirit from her body, sense auras and also command spirits and use them in battle, which is probably my favourite little detail of the entire set up. I believe “OH EM GEE SPIRIT COMBAT” were my exact words upon reading.
Considering I don’t tend to enjoy protagonists who are “the specialist of all the special peoples!“, I found myself really enjoying Paige. She’s not the anti-hero I crave in absolutely everything I read, but she’s a well-developed character, a force of good but nicely flawed. She’s had a traumatic life, she has to live with the knowledge that everyone believes her kind are evil or just wrong. But by taking a job in the syndicate, essentially working for this world’s version of a mob boss, she finds a sense of belonging and acceptance, even if she has to engage in illegal activities. She’s learned to be strong, to fight her cause, but deep down she’s still a scared child who longs for acceptance. She’s nineteen and she feels nineteen. She’s intelligent, she’s strong, she’s grown, but there’s still a strong sense of the child in her. And I like that.
“No, Paige. I am trying to help you.”
“Go to hell.”
“I already exist on a level of hell.”
“Exist on one that isn’t near mine.”
But Paige’s crime-loving days are fairly short-lived, as she swiftly gets herself caught by the powers that be and get shipped off to the mysterious city of Oxford, which isn’t so much mysterious as it is taken over by beings that are not human. But I won’t spoil the plot for you. Because it’s awesome.
If I’m honest, it’s the world building that makes this book the beauty that it is. But because the world is so detailed, the information is weaved into the entirety of the plot so much so that it becomes the plot, and the plot becomes the world-building, which is a sentence I’m not even sure makes sense. Learning about the world bit-by bit becomes as interesting and suspenseful as what’s actually going on with Paige, and it’s actually what I enjoyed the most. Though sometimes it felt too much to be getting on with, the sheer amount of different types of clairvoyant being the main example, I still found it incredible. It was just so up my alley it was unreal. A cleverly crafted dystopia, an interesting twist on clairvoyance, and so many brilliant details. I loved the idea of spirit combat, I loved the different types of spirits, I loved that you can bind a poltergeist in this world and turn it into a battery. I mean that was just genius.
What I loved most was that it wasn’t just a story about the future where clairvoyance is a thing. The “magic system” has been so well-thought out and so expertly ingrained in the fantasy world that it feels real. Samantha Shannon has really put the time in to think about how folks’ lives would be completely different with the existence of clairvoyance, and I mean that in every possible way. She’s considered the socio-political aspects, the psychological implications, and she particularly impressed me with the nuggets of detail.
There’s a snippet early on where Paige tells us of her colleague, a medium, who allows a moody ghost of a 17th century painter to possess her every so often so she can paint masterpieces and sell them at the black market under his name. That’s a fantastic little detail that, objectively, could have been shaved in proof-reading as it doesn’t have an impact on the plot or anything, but it’s that kind of thing that makes the book brilliant, it really does.
If it weren’t for the constant world-building throughout, the plot wouldn’t have been as interesting. Without learning about this awesome world to steal the focus, I would have probably found the plot a bit stale. It did resemble books like the Black Magician trilogy, the romance was predictable, and there was one instance that felt like “action for the sake of action”. I’m pretty sure that if the admittedly sub-par plot was the main focus, I would have instinctively paid more attention to Paige’s character development, just to see if I could find something better. And, though I like Paige, I also know I’m very hard to please when it comes to characters, and I would have liked her a bit more flawed.
But when there’s something about a book that I absolutely adore, being in this case the world-building, I can easily forgive other aspects for not being quite as good. As long as they’re not absolute shite, I really don’t mind. And it’s always good to know there’s going to be more books in the series, allowing for these things to develop.
Paige was absolutely fine, as were the other characters (I’m very interested to see more of Warden and Jaxon Hall). The plot was a bit weak at times, but it still worked for me. But the world-building is what you read for. The world-building is what makes you put the book down for a minute and just mutter, to your empty bedroom, “that was fucking brilliant“.
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