Series Review: The Nevernight Chronicles

Good eve, gentlefriends, I see you’ve returned with a hunger for more regarding our tragic tale. O’, there’s little I can say to put your heart at ease, but prithee, rest your weary arse upon your seat if you wish to hear my sordid thoughts, and pray that you have the stomach to handle them.

I’m here today to talk about Jay Kristoff’s bloody fantasy epic trilogy, starting with Nevernight, continuing in Godsgrave, and recently wrapping things up in Darkdawn. The quickest review I can give you for The Nevernight Chronicles is that if it hurt your head to read that opening paragraph, then you should probably skip this one. This series and its obtuse writing style are extremely divisive, with some lauding Kristoff for setting his series apart through daring stylistic choices (such as skipping lines whenever the hero, Mia, uses her shadow magic,) and others comparing the experience of reading it to banging their head against a brick wall.

Personally, I fall somewhere closer to… eh?

Maw’s teeth, it had been grand to forget it all just for a moment.

Nevernight (which from here on out refers to the series) follows Mia, an assassin described by the series’ cynical narrator as a cold-hearted killer who topples tyrants and leaves ’empires in ashes’ in her wake. That’s not a spoiler, it’s in the prophetic prologue that also tells us that Mia dies at the end of the story. That’s right: Nevernight begins by foretelling the death of the protagonist we haven’t even met yet, a move reminiscent of the epic tragedies of yore. However, the jaded prologue is full of lies–once we meet her, we learn that while Mia is adept at ending lives, she’s not nearly the sociopathic slayer the narrator claims she is. Motivated by revenge for her parents death against the corrupt government leaders that brought about their demise, Mia trains as an assassin with an exclusive school for killing called the Red Church. There she learns to make friends, fall in love, and discover that she’s actually a deeply sympathetic person unwilling to sacrifice innocents for her cause. She may be very good at slashing the throats of the vile, but make no mistake: Mia has a strong moral compass throughout the series.

Which is probably for the best. I might be alone in this, but personally I find fierce, hard-driven revenge stories to often be super fucking boring. Protagonists who are aggravating balls of anger and spite, who live and breath for the sole purpose of being able to shank whoever wronged them, are not only unrelatable, they’re one-dimensional. When all I know about the person I’m supposed to be rooting for is ‘they hate this other person a whole lot,’ that doesn’t really give me a reason to root for them. Nevernight is made better because it quickly breaks the promises made in its introduction, characterizing Mia as someone who is working towards the eventual goal of getting revenge on the tyrants who killed her parents but who is still willing to stop along the way to live her life. She enjoys learning how make friends, get hot & heavy, and mix elegant poisons. She has pride in her skills and loyalty towards those she loves. I give Kristoff credit for creating a protagonist who is likable without eschewing her more terrifying traits: make no mistake, Mia kills people very easily, and I couldn’t even begin to tally up her body count by the end of the series. I still found myself rooting for her, only pausing to reflect on her more frivolous carnage when she herself was questioning how ambivalent she was to slitting throats.

She had killed a few hundred of their calvarymen, she supposed.

Part of why cheering for Mia felt to me so easy was not so much related to her though, and instead a product of the series’ tone. While the overarching story is taken seriously, it should be mentioned that Nevernight is in many ways a dark comedy. Mia is accompanied by Mr. Kindly, a mysterious shadow-cat who’s always unfazed and makes snide remarks at every turn. There’s a great deal of banter between all of the characters, a non-stop slew of sex jokes, and a fair number of extraneous details added to the plot for no other reason than to elicit a laugh. While it’s certainly not a dedicated comedy, I did find myself snorting somewhat frequently while flipping through the pages.

It helps that Mia herself has a strong sense of humor: she gives her horses dumb, insulting names, cracks witticisms while on the verge of death, and derives a great deal of pleasure from slinging insults back and forth with clever people. But most of the laughs, or attempts at them, come from the narrator–distinct from Mia herself, Kristoff’s narrator is utterly determined to not take most events too seriously. No matter how intense the plot gets, the cynical, crass narrator is always there to inject humor in between the bloodshed, or, more often than not, at the bottom of the page.

Which brings us neatly to the matter of the footnotes.

Perhaps one of Nevernight’s most distinctive stylistic choices is its use of footnotes. Kristoff’s tangential asides, marked by an asterisk or similar symbol, make full use of their tiny font to tell all sorts of unrelated stories about the history, lore, biomes, and traditions of his fictional world of Itreya. It might be wrong to even call some of them footnotes: some of them, to my chagrin, were multiple pages long, interrupting the story of Mia whenever they pleased to talk about two-hundred-year-old idiot kings and which of Itreya’s lifeforms had the biggest dick-to-body ratio. Now, I’m not fundamentally opposed to the idea of using separate, parallel text to help with world-building in an otherwise propulsive and fast-paced novel. Kristoff’s narrator keeps fairly close to Mia’s experiences and internal dialogue, so it wouldn’t feel very natural to jam the information into the actual pages. The problem, especially in the first two volumes, was that after I’d read the first couple of darkly funny footnote-stories, I felt like I’d read most of them.

The vast majority of Kristoff’s footnotes follow a similar structure: start with a piece of relevant information about Itreya, launch into an elaborate, tongue-in-cheek justification of said information that feels more like the set-up for a joke than actual information, and then wrap things up with a sex or death related one-liner. Most of the footnotes are too long to fit here in their entirety, but here’s some examples of their tail-ends. Don’t worry, they’re spoiler free: most of the footnotes have nothing to do with anything that happens in the story.

The pair’s rivalry spanned decades, and looked surely to end in the death of one or both. But when the daemon-king, Sha’Annu, rose in the north and threatened all the empire, the pair joined forces to defeat him. Bound by the kinship found only in battle, the pair declared themselves brothers, and vowed in blood they would remain so ’til the end of their days. Tariq even refrained from bedding Andarai’s mother again.

His daughter, however…

Folk marked with three circles are the rarest and most valuable, their brand indicating they’re possessed of an education or some exceptional skill: scribes, musicians, majordomo, and some highly prized courtesans.

And if you’re wondering why skilled prostitutes are so valued in the Republic, gentlefriends, you’ve obviously never spent the night with a skilled prostitute.

Caravaggio fought with twin blades–one in each hand–pioneering the art of dual-wielding that eventually bore his name. Ironically, his fondness for twins also proved his downfall: he was killed in a duel by Don Lentius after spending a night of drunken passion with Varus’s twin daughters, Lucilla and Lucia. Reportedly still intoxicated and too exhausted to heft his rapier, he was skewered by his opponent quite easily–and inglorious end for such an artisan of the blade.

His last words were reportedly “Worth it…”

Now, I won’t claim that they’re all like this. A smattering are actually informative, and some are just one-line quips that can actually be funny. But after you’ve read your first three stories about dastardly rogues sleeping with people’s daughters you start to wonder how much you’d really be missing if you just ignored the tiny font on the bottom of the page. And in fact, the answer isn’t much–as it turns out, these footnotes built around their punchlines are mostly irrelevant to the story, meaning they’re pretty much just an excuse for Kristoff to tell an endless string of jokes about dumb people dying and horny people with weird kinks. Maybe this wouldn’t be so exhausting if Nevernight wasn’t already almost entirely about exactly those two things, but the result is definitely an over-saturation of the same subject matter. At the very least the footnotes are turned down in the third book, thank fuck.

While I’m on the topic of Kristoff’s smut, let’s have a chat about the series’ actual smut. Some wise English teacher once said that sex for the sake of sex in fiction is just porn, and using that description I’d argue that some portion of Nevernight is, well, porn. There’s definitely not much character development or thematic purpose to the sometimes pages-long love-making scenes. It’s all just their mouths found each other, a warmth spread between her legs, and then her fingers, trailing down. Spirals, turning ever lower, into the mysteries below. Mother, she wanted her. Pulled her in. Tangled her fingers in that golden hair. There, now you’ve read all of Kristoff’s sex scenes, except it’s usually this for many more paragraphs and it always ends in everyone orgasming. Much like the footnotes, these scenes suffer from gross repetition in the way that they’re written. Is all sex the same in this world? Every sex scene in this entire trilogy could probably have been more evocative as a four-sentence allusion that left most things to the imagination.

The flipside is that when there aren’t bloated sex scenes, the actual relationships in the series are super compelling. Kristoff writes believable romances between his cynical assassins, most of it starting as lust in a world where death is omnipresent and then slowly developing into bonds the reader can believe in. And not just romantic relationships either: whether longtime friends or long-estranged siblings, Kristoff is careful to define the relative strengths and weaknesses of character’s ties to each other. Mia’s fellow assassins-in-training, Tric and Ashlinn, both bring out different sides of her, and it’s her distinctively different but comparably potent connections with each of them that pull the series forward even when its simplistic revenge plot doesn’t seem to know where to go. Seriously, credit where credit is due–the bonds between Mia and her companions drastically increased my investment in the story because through watching their dynamics shift through shared experiences I was able to understand and appreciate how much these characters defined each other. I believe I actually wept at one point while reading the third book because of how tightly Kristoff had knotted his leads together. If there’s anything that I look for first and foremost in fiction it’s whether I can fall in love with the cast, and on that front Nevernight succeeds.

Unfortunately, Nevernight’s cast have some heavy lifting to do. While Nevernight often feels more intent on being entertaining than truly epic, there’s definitely a central effort by Kristoff to tell a grand, sweeping tale of espionage and myth. The only problem is that the plot is a poorly-paced jumbled mess, focusing nearly the entire first book on a Harry-Potter-esque training experience, taking the second book on an extended tangent through the gladiator circuits, and then trying to cram most of the promised story into a rushed and inevitably predictable third novel. The central antagonist doesn’t get any real lines until book three, the second book does actually nothing to advance the main story until the very final pair of chapters, and there’s an entire plot line about Itreya’s divinities that feels like it only exists to make the story feel bigger without actually earning it. If you’re looking for another Game of Thrones, run for the door. This is more like Jersey Shore with the setting of The Lord of the Rings. However, if you’re just interested in following likable characters through a furious, heart-pounding romp of drama and backstabbing, the series is worth a look. I laughed more than I cringed, and even the footnotes weren’t all bad. Three cheers for Mia, and may I never have to write the word gentlefriends ever again.

A moment to think. A moment to breathe.

Oh, and for what it’s worth, I hated the ending.

Nevernight — 6/10
Godsgrave — 6/10
Darkdawn — 5/10

Series Score — 6/10, because I’m feeling nice.