Silla Kennicott changed when her parents died, when she knelt bathed in their blood and the senseless violence. Now she’s received a book that speaks of magic and blood, that makes grand promises that should feel unnatural and superstitious and ridiculous. Instead, it feels right. The book isn’t the only thing that’s new and right- there’s also her neighbor Nick, a city boy transplanted to her small town, a boy with buried memories trying to claw their way to the surface. But magic always has a price, sometimes not easily paid by nicking a finger or slashing a palm. For some magics, everything is required.
And there are some people more than willing to make others pay that price for them.
Maybe it makes me morbid but I love this entire premise, the idea of magic based in blood. It forces a heavy scale of consequence for power, requires that there be severe limitations. I love it. With any magical system, it’s tempting to let it run free without any price being paid to harness that power. That’s not how it is here. The greater the magic, the higher the cost, not just in a literal quantity of blood but also in moral questions. If you need more blood than you can sensibly provide, what do you do? Not perform the spell? Pool your resources with other people? Find another source? For every piece of a thing, there’s a price, and for every price there’s a question.
It renders everything in shades of grey. There’s really nothing black and white here, not in the history that’s brought them all to this point, not in the decisions and actions currently unfolding, not in what lies ahead. What seems clear and unquestionable- such as how Silla’s parents died- isn’t. What seems like the right thing to do may not be, or it might be the wrong thing for the right reasons. It lets us question everything that’s going on right along with the characters. Those questions never pull us out of what’s going on, never make us close the book to think through all the ramifications, but they filter through the words and the actions until the question and the fact are inescapably intertwined. Occasionally horrific things sometimes have genuinely good motivations until it’s impossible to separate out the different threads and label them good and evil, right and wrong. It’s hard to praise something good without also realizing there’s a certain repugnance to the acts that brought it about.
Maybe it’s because I’m a theatre junkie, but I adore Silla’s way of looking at the world. The way she chooses a mask for each circumstance, building an expression and attitude off a physical basis, is gorgeous. I used to have porcelain masks hung over my room, painted and eyeless, beautiful works of art but ultimately smooth and expressionless and soulless. She has dozens of masks all over her walls and she can use the reminder of them to get through difficult things, to keep a bland face in the midst of turmoil, to find a smile to reassure concerned friends. The expressions aren’t real but they suit people who can’t look beneath the surface to see what’s really going on, the people who are willing to accept what seems a clear truth when the real truth is anything but. Silla’s broken before we even meet her and at first the masks are meant to hide that. Slowly, though, the masks become more. They’re a part of her, they’ll always be a part of her- that’s part of what being an actress is- but they gradually become genuine, a way to remind herself of the real emotions they represent when she’s cut herself off from everything. Her separation, the sudden changes she’s gone through before we join the story, weave through every other piece but it never falls flat, never feels forced. At the moments when we most need people, we have a way of drifting apart, and because they don’t understand, because they get weirded out in spite of best intentions, they let us move apart.
Nick is adorable. He’s a slick city boy stuck in a small town with a father who still spends most of the week in the city and a step-mother he calls Lilith. We don’t even find out her real name until well over halfway through. (I’ve had a step-mother I gave a significantly less flattering name to- I thoroughly sympathize). And, let’s face, Lilith is uber-creepy, and I sincerely hope we get to find out more about that in the future. She’s always this slightly menacing presence, always has a hidden motivation for what she says or does, and it is just so creepy. I love it. The way Nick gets drawn into the story is an interesting one, filtered through with half-forgotten memories that twine through things he’s wanted to forget but couldn’t. We never actually meet her- not really- but his mother is such a strong presence in what he does and how he views things. It tugs him back and forth, wanting to believe his mother was only crazy but then gradually, sometimes grudgingly, having to accept that there was truth mixed in through the instability. His support for Silla, especially early on, builds from everything he went through with his mother.
There’s an ambiguity to many of the characters. It’s not a sense that we don’t know them, because they all come off as distinct and real, but that there’s always a shred of uncertainty lurking through. Everyone has secrets, everything has things to hide, and no one’s motivations are quite as transparent as we’d maybe hope. Even the people we want to trust present us with the potential for danger and betrayal, especially as we learn more about the nature of the magic and what it can do.
On a slightly more technical aspect, I love how Josephine’s diary is woven through the alternating narratives of Silla and Nick. All three voices are separate and distinct, but it takes a long time to learn why Josephine’s voice is present. As the reader, we get to learn things about the magic that Silla and Nick don’t know yet, and we get to feel a more deep-seated dread as events in the past unfold and we just know that this is going to echo through into the future, but once it does, it’s still astonishing. We know they have to be connected but it’s still such a shocking twist when it actually happens that I actually started laughing simply because I was so delighted by it. I can usually guess what’s happening with books because there are patterns we naturally tend towards, but I was honestly surprised, and I loved it.
This isn’t an easy book, and certainly not one for the squeamish or faint of heart. The magic has a price, and the grander the act, the higher the price. It slices through the easy questions just as the magicians cut their skin, cleanly and with a sharp divide. People can look at the same spells, the same instructions and lists of ingredients, and do completely different things with them, do them for different reasons. We see what happens when someone uses the power for selfish reasons, but we also see what happens when someone uses the power to help others. We also see how astonishingly similar the consequences of both actions can be. It isn’t easy, it isn’t simple, but it’s gorgeous.
This was a book I savored; I’m beyond grateful that I picked it up on a day when I didn’t have to work or do anything else to a timetable, because once I started I didn’t want to close the cover for anything until it was done. I’m curious to see the direction the sequel takes- we know the physcial sense of direction, but there are so many possibile avenues. The ending wraps up this story, or rather this part of it, but it also leaves a lot of mystery wrapped through what’s already occurred. The fact that I’m going to have to wait a year to find out where it’s going is kind of maddening.
Until next time~