Middle-Book Syndrome? Never Heard of It: The Cage of Dark Hours by Marina J. Lostetter

Posted 11th February 2023 by Sia in Fantasy Reviews, Queer Lit, Reviews / 0 Comments

The Cage of Dark Hours (The Five Penalties, #2) by Marina J. Lostetter
Genres: Fantasy, Secondary World Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Queernorm world, brown bi/pansexual MC, achillean MC, bi/pansexual secondary character, bi/pansexual love interest, minor intersex rep
PoV: Third-person, past-tense, multiple PoVs
Published on: 14th February 2023
ISBN: B0927CJP29

Krona and her Regulators survived their encounter with Charbon, the long-dead serial killer who returned to their city, but the illusions of their world were shattered forever.

Allied with the healer Melanie they will battle the elite of their world who have ruled their world with deception, cold steel, and tight control of the magic that could threaten their power, while also confronting beasts from beyond the foggy barrier that binds their world.

Now they must follow every thread to uncover the truth behind the Thalo, once thought of as only a children's tale, who are the quiet, creeping puppet masters of their world.

I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.


~pocket watches vital to national security
~a stained-glass dress
~blue assassins
~a magic system that runs on secrets
~a very important light fixture

*spoilers for The Helm of Midnight, book one of the trilogy!*

Review of The Helm of Midnight

The first, most immediate thing you need to know about The Cage of Dark Hours is: no, you really can’t just rely on the recap at the start of the book to refresh your memory about the events of book one. You need to actually reread the first book in the series, The Helm of Midnight, before diving in to this.

It’s worth it, I promise. Firstly, because Helm is excellent in its own right. But maybe even more importantly…starting Cage minutes after finishing a reread of Helm?

Means that Cage’s very first line hits you like a bulldozer, turning everything you thought you knew about the world Lostetter has created upside-down and inside-out.


This series reads like the progression of a would-be initiate into an ancient mystery cult; there are layers within layers, circles within circles, and every step towards the centre comes with new revelations. Having made our way through Helm, Cage initiates us into the deeper mysteries of Lostetter’s world – but this secret knowledge raises as many new questions as it answers; far from filling in all the gaps, Cage reveals to us a vastly larger world than we were led to believe existed. We knew things were not as they appeared to the characters of book one, but good gods, we had no idea of what was actually waiting for us behind all the misdirections, myths, and outright lies!

The king of the rats is still a rat, and the cats will laugh when they eat him just the same.”

If we think of the world of the Five Penalties as a skeleton, then the bones of the truth are buried under the skin that is – for lack of a better term – civilisation; a not-always-so-polite fiction that everyone believes in. There’s objective reality, and then there’s what (almost) everyone thinks and believes exists, and which they make into a kind of truth by virtue of thinking and believing it.

And honestly, I’m in complete awe at this entire structure; not just the sheer uniqueness of the world Lostetter has created (although that delights and confounds me endlessly) but the world she’s built on top of that, and how well both fit together. She’s crafted this literally epic – in scale and scope and sheer awesomeness – conspiracy, made it virtually seamless, and made sure there’s no way we’ll ever guess what’s really behind the curtain. The world Krona and the rest of the characters inhabit is every bit as intricate and believable as our world, and then the real world, the world underneath all that, is just–

AHHHH. I can’t talk about it because spoilers, but seriously, WHAT, and HOW, and WTF, and I CAN’T EVEN, and THIS IS SO DAMN COOL.

Even the parts that are horrifying.

“One worry at a time!” Mandip insisted.

“I’m afraid that’s not how worries work.

I know I’ve made it all sound very complicated; it’s actually not. Helm was a book that demanded real work on the part of the reader, with all its different timelines and perspectives and characters who had differing amounts of access to Behind The Curtain. Cage is a much easier read, both structurally – the direction of the plot is much more straightforward than it was in the previous book – and in terms of keeping track of what we know and don’t know. Although we have a handful of PoV characters, there’s really just two you need to keep track of, and it helps that both of them are aware of the Behind The Curtain (albeit to differing degrees) which was not the case in Helm.

The fact that Cage is an easier read really feels like a reward for having made it through the first book without getting lost!

“Never be surprised when the man who cut you off at the knees starts to look like a giant.”

As I said, Cage doesn’t leave us with all our questions answered; by the end of the book, I had more than I’d started with. But I wasn’t frustrated; I was incredibly excited. Lostetter walks a perfect balance between whetting our appetites for answers and leaving us starving, revealing enough to make us reel at the implications without giving the whole game away. Two books into this trilogy, I still don’t feel like I have a clear idea of what the capital-t Truth is – although we certainly know more at this point than we did at the end of Helm. I mean. THE THING. AND THE OTHER THING. AND THE OTHER-OTHER THING. !!! I feel completely RABID for book three, but I know I can wait for it because it’s clear, from the bits of the puzzle that I have, that the pay-off is going to be so worth it. Does that make sense?

And I absolutely loved what we did learn in Cage; both the big, sweeping reveals of the Behind The Curtain stuff, but also the more ‘mundane’ worldbuilding. For example, Mandip, one of the new PoV characters, is a window into the nobility and the workings of government, and I found all of that fascinating; I loved the absolute WEIRDNESS that was the national vault and how all of that was set up (THE MINEFIELD). I greatly appreciated the continuing normalcy of queer people and relationships, and the sneaky little details mentioned in passing (like it being polite to offer luststones to someone you’re about to sleep with!) that padded out the culture and made all these people feel so perfectly real.

Plus, I feel absolutely vindicated re the varger. I KNEW SOMETHING WAS UP WITH THE VARGER.

“Being shameless lets us take advantage of other people’s prudishness. Which–surely you’ve noted–is quite an effective strategy.”

There were quite a lot of laugh-out-loud moments in this book, especially when it came to witty characters (of which Cage features a few!) It broke up the deadly seriousness of the stakes really well, helped diffuse some of the tension so that the reader could occasionally catch their breath – because once things get moving, they really don’t stop. I wouldn’t call it a break-neck pace – Lostetter is careful to give us enough time to absorb and process every left curve she throws us – but it’s definitely not slow. If anything, I thought there were a few points where the story felt a little rushed, but since I was impatient to turn every page and keep devouring the story, it wasn’t really a problem!

Metals were the means of transition. They shifted the nature of things. They were the keys of the soil, the padlocks of stone, the passwords for leaves.

I do feel the need to give a content warning, which isn’t really a spoiler – what it says about the worldbuilding is heavily implied in the first book – but just in case, I’m putting it under a spoiler-cut. View Spoiler »

The biggest con of Helm, for me, was the whole serial-killer plotline, so without that, plus all the jaw-dropping things we learn in Cage about Conspiracies and Magic and Who Is Pulling The Strings – to say nothing of fabulous opera singers, pocket watches that are vital to national security, and, oh yeah, THE GODS – there was no way I wasn’t going to fall head over heels for this book.

I love it. I LOVE it. And since it’s out this coming Tuesday, you can read it and fall in love with it yourself VERY SOON!

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