Ember Morrow has just one chance to escape the life of docile marriage and motherhood that awaits girls in 1404 Scotland: her father owes a life debt to Conatus, a branch of Church knights who fight the lesser known evils of the world. If they accept her, her vows will protect her from her father’s plans and expectations, will free her to follow the life of action she’s always dreamed of. What she doesn’t know is that the evils faced by Conatus are worse than she could have imagined, and her trial of entrance is hardly the most difficult trial she’ll face. A terrible force is rising, and soon she’ll be cast in the middle of it.
In the interests of full disclosure, I won this ARC through a Goodreads First Reads giveaway, and tell you what, the arrival of this book was the ONLY good thing about a truly horrible day. I stayed up way too late reading this book, and I’m pretty sure that will be a very common statement after the book’s release.
I’m a character junkie, I make no bones about that, and Ember Morrow is a very likeable heroine. She’s intensely vulnerable, fierce, determined, a little awkward, and very aware of the fact that whatever choice she makes for herself, there is always someone who can override it. All the drive in the world can’t change the very basic fact of her existence: there’s always someone who can successfully tell her no. She’s unaccustomed being seen for herself, for who she is, and equally unfamiliar with being judged for her own merit. With the exceptions of Barrow and Sorcha, and a few other smaller characters, everyone seems to want something else of her. She’s not insensitive to that, but what really impressed me is that she isn’t dismissive of it either. Though her sister is in an arranged marriage, she genuinely wishes her every happiness, even acknowledges at times that a life of security like that might be pleasant, or at least not terrible. She understands the society in which she lives and doesn’t rail against it- she just doesn’t want that for herself.
That understanding is part of what makes her so appealing. Just as it can be hard to sympathize with someone who doesn’t fight for anything, it can be hard to feel much for someone who fights everything. Ember is a beautiful balance of living in her world as it is and wanting to have something better for herself. She comes to her training honestly and with a great joy that reaffirms her decisions even when she has cause to doubt or question them. Though the physical ease of some of her training sometimes strains credulity, it’s never completely over the top. She’s just this utterly fantastic character who was wonderful to read with.
I could definitely stand to know more about Barrow Hess, and I hope we’ll get that in the second. We come to know him as Ember does, so the mystery is understandable, but the enigma could stand to be penetrated a bit. He’s sexy and skilled, and we know his qualities, but nothing of his history, nothing truly personal. We get the sense that there’s a great deal of depth to his character, but we don’t get to learn any of it yet. He’s still alluring- and let’s face it, pretty hot-but he’s such an intriguing character that I was a little disappointed not to see more of him.
And can I just say how much I love Sorcha? She is absofrickinlutely awesome. And um…wait, no, can’t say that. Spoiler. But, oh my God, Sorcha. Seriously.
Most of the other characters are touched on more lightly. We get a sense of them, enough to leave a sketch of impression on the memory, but we don’t really know them. Even Eira, who shares the shoulder of the narration, never really comes off as less than cold. Cian, her sister, is more rounded, a blend of caution, duty, and excitement, but Eira’s dissatisfaction colors her so thoroughly that it’s difficult to have any true suspense about her decisions. Subsequent (or rather prior) knowledge aside, you always know she’s going to do something reckless and terrible. She fights against everything (which, in some respects, makes a nice parallel to Ember’s sense of balance) but she’s tempered by intolerance. She’s in a position of power but while she certainly has the skills to merit the position, she lacks the more difficult aspects of leadership. It’s hard to feel sympathy for her setbacks because she very clearly brings them upon herself.
Well, that and her setbacks are usually good news for everyone not on the reckless side of things.
I loved the care and detail given to the weapons and gear, in both the variety and quality of the pieces. It helps keep things interesting- because everyone having the same weapons gets a little boring- and also helps tie specific details into the personalities. When we see a type of weapon, we know who it belongs to, so we know at a glance who’s in the scene even before a name is given. It also gives a solid nod to the fact that the order, or at least its purpose, is universal. Unlike their non-Conatus counterparts, the Guards have a good reason to have weapons that would otherwise be exotic and frankly out of place in the fifteenth century highlands. And, of course, I love that we get to see the weapons in use. There was one part so unexpectedly gross and gory and wonderful, I wanted to hug Andrea Cremer and say thank you. That scene was exquisite, both in its appalling sense of setting and the way it uses that setting and the subsequent events to tug on the heartstrings. Just a wonderfully crafted scene.
I wished we could have seen a little more of the rest of Conatus. It makes sense that most of what we see is the Guard, but the trial is so rich with promise in the other aspects of the keep that I thought that would carry over into the rest of the book. Each arm of Conatus contributes something valuable, all are equally necessary, and I wanted to see them just a little in their natural habitats. Even if it was just at meals or something of that nature. Conatus as a group, as an institution of sorts, is an amazing, richly wrought creation, but we only get to play in the shadows of its greatness.
This is definitely a study of character rather than plot. That’s partly a product of the leisure of us knowing from the original trilogy that a Very Bad Thing happens and people try to stop it- we already know that. Why we’re here is to find out how and why it happened, and when the end event is known, it’s a less stressful journey to the reveal. Despite a few sharp incidents- oh, Dorusduain- most of the book feels like it’s just getting to a point where it can set up the next one. It’s not that the pacing’s off, because it isn’t- it moves along very well, carefully interspersing heavier scenes with ligher ones, action scenes with conversation scenes. It’s not something you can really put your finger on, but when it comes to the end, you’re exactly where you expected to be, and it feels like it didn’t take any time at all to get there. That’s not a complaint- this is a book you devour in as close to one sitting as possible, so the ultimate timeline can feel a bit deceptive.
Given the original trilogy, this isn’t surprising, but I absolutely loved the attention given to gender roles, expectations, and limitations. Specifically, how even when women seem to break from their pre-defined roles, they’re still constrained by having to act within them for the sensibilities of external society, and for their own protection. It’s a careful compromise between building strong characters and being honest to the setting and time period, and it was fantastic. It can be something as simple as a dress and a hairstyle that offers safety for women stepping deeper into a man’s world. I love the exquisite dance be see between politics and faith, the two extremes of the Church represented in directly opposing- though not directly confrontational- figures. The history geek in me was nearly swooning.
This book isn’t out until 7 August, but guess what? I’m giving away my ARC! Open to US residents only (sorry), and all you have to do is answer a question.
The members of Conatus are split into three branches: Knowledge, Craft, and War. Each branch has its own secrets, its own purpose, but each branch is necessary to the survival and well-being of the other two. With Knowledge comes the legacy of accumulated wisdom and histories, with Craft the ability to create and enhance, while War can be used both to defend and vanquish.
Want to win this advance copy?
Comment below and tell me which branch you would choose- and why. Entries will be accepted through 25 July.
And mark you calendars, because the second book, Rise will be out in stores 8 January 2013!
Until next time~