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.The Helm of Midnight (The Five Penalties, #1) by Marina J. Lostetter
Representation: MC of colour, queernorm world, minor nonbinary characters
on 13th April 2021
Genres: Secondary World Fantasy
A legendary serial killer stalks the streets of a fantastical city in The Helm of Midnight, the stunning first novel in a new trilogy from acclaimed author Marina Lostetter.In a daring and deadly heist, thieves have made away with an artifact of terrible power--the death mask of Louis Charbon. Made by a master craftsman, it is imbued with the spirit of a monster from history, a serial murderer who terrorized the city with a series of gruesome murders.
Now Charbon is loose once more, killing from beyond the grave. But these murders are different from before, not simply random but the work of a deliberate mind probing for answers to a sinister question.
It is up to Krona Hirvath and her fellow Regulators to enter the mind of madness to stop this insatiable killer while facing the terrible truths left in his wake.
~not a Jack the Ripper story
~masks with souls
~the gods have an Agenda
~or do they???
I am very, very worried that Helm of Midnight is being marketed all wrong – because it’s almost everything I love, and I almost walked right past it. I only stopped to take another look after hearing other reviewers whispering about unusual magic systems and strange worldbuilding, which are, you know, my jam. So I decided to take a gamble. Maybe I could put up with reading about a sort-of-murder-mystery if the trade off was brilliant worldbuilding.
But the thing is, Helm of Midnight is not a murder mystery. It is unique and impressive and genuinely special, but what it is not is a thriller, a police procedural. The blurb for this book is so misleading. The catch-the-killer aspect of this story is just a mask.
Beneath that mask, this book is something very, very different.
And you don’t need to look closely to see that. Helm makes it very clear, on the very first page, that we’re not treading familiar roads with this one; the book opens with a brief excerpt from a fictional scroll, written by someone we later learn is a kind of prophet-figure in Helm‘s world, and this excerpt concisely describes the five gods Emotion, Nature, Knowledge, Time, and the Unknown.
It’s not the fact that Nature is masculine that made me sit up and pay attention – although that is very cool. It’s the fact that three of the gods are nonbinary, and use nonbinary pronouns; Emotion = zhe, Knowledge = fey, and the Unknown = they.
But this excerpt isn’t really about the gods, so much as it’s about the Five Penalties (from which, one gathers, the series’ name comes), and this cements the certainty that this isn’t going to be your typical fantasy story. Because this scroll is talking about an ’emote tax’ through which people must share emotion. Time must be shared through a time tax. The other Penalties are a bit more mundane, but – emotion taxes? Time taxes? Nonbinary deities?
We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.
Where we are is the Valley, the only place in the world safe for human habitation. It’s large, this Valley, don’t worry; large enough to be divided into five nations, so we’re not talking about a little tucked-away hamlet. It’s protected by a barrier the gods sacrificed themselves to make, because beyond the Valley, well… Here be monsters doesn’t begin to cover it. But within the barrier, there is society; civilization that depends upon gemstones imbued with emotion and uses time as currency, where the uniquely talented can have their skills preserved after death in masks, so that their skills or knowledge don’t die with them.
Like the Mayhem Mask, which holds the anatomical skills of the serial killer Louis Charbon. And which is stolen, in a bizarre and deadly heist featuring monsters and men disguised as monsters, in the first chapter.
Krona and her sister Lia are Regulators – something like police, if police officers wore armour that made them look like artisanal chess pieces – and it was their team, Captain Lia’s team, watching over the mask when it was stolen. Making it Krona’s top priority to get it back.
Getting it back is complicated.
The book switches between three perspectives; Krona’s, as she and her fellow Regulators, including her sister, try to retrieve the mask and unravel the rapidly-growing mystery surrounding it; Charbon himself, set 10 years before; and Melanie, whose storyline takes place two years before the mask’s theft. Although Krona gets the most page-time, it’s hard not to argue that Charbon and Melanie’s chapters are actually the most important, as both contain and explore world-shaking revelations that would change – everything.
Ascribing unknowable evil to something was just an excuse not to understand it, a way to wash one’s hands of it.
I have some sympathy for whoever wrote Helm of Midnight‘s blurb, because it’s difficult to talk about what makes this book so jaw-droppingly incredible without giving away spoilers. But this is not a murder-mystery. It’s not even, really, about retrieving the stolen mask. As deftly as Lostetter weaves the world of the Valley together, she just as deftly unpicks the threads and holds them up for us to get a closer look at. She flips the tapestry to show us the knots and bindings underneath, the complicated hidden truths built into every aspect of this world. As soon as she establishes a rule, she makes us question it. And in a lesser author’s hands, maybe that would turn into a disorientating, confusing mess, but not here. Here it turns into something deep and rich, with layer after layer of secrets and magic and monsters and gods to sink your teeth into.
I think the best example I can use to showcase this – meaning, the only example I can think of which doesn’t spoil anything – is the varger. Varger are unkillable, hideous monsters that come in five breeds, each with its own special, horrifying ability. The only thing varger do is kill, and the only way to stop them is to hit them with the metal their breed is vulnerable to, and drain their power until they dissolve into a gas, which can be captured in a specially sealed bottle. And then you put the bottle somewhere very safe where no one can ever, ever get to it, because if the varg gets out, things get ugly.
All of Krona’s chapters in Helm of Midnight begin with a few lines about someone who, as a child, had an encounter with a varg. It’s not clear whether the person speaking is Krona or not; these passages are the only parts of the book in first-person, but there just aren’t enough context clues to tell who’s speaking. Regardless, this story-within-a-story talks about how this child – a young girl – found a wild varg and gradually, over time, tamed it. She brought it salves, and the ever-present, oozing sores of all varger eventually healed and went away. Instead of ripping her to pieces, the varg becomes her friend. She even, at one point, weaves it a collar out of flowers.
This flies against literally everything else we know about varger. It contradicts Krona’s knowledge of and experience with varger; it contradicts the reader’s experience of the varger who appear on-page. But gradually, bit by bit, as we get more of this first-person story, it becomes very clear that what ‘everyone knows’ about varger is wrong. It’s contradicted by this little girl’s story. Oh, no question, varger kill people. They’re still dangerous. But.
Something is going on here.
The entire book is like that: as one hand establishes a fundamental aspect of the worldbuilding, the other hand takes it away. Nothing can be taken at face value, and none of the tenets of Krona’s, Charbon’s, or Melanie’s understanding of the world can be trusted. It’s not a case of unreliable narrators so much as, the characters themselves are living in a world that is lying to them. Within a society that lies to them. Magics misdirect and monsters might not be monsters. Maybe gods and prophets aren’t gods and prophets, either.
Maybe a serial killer had a really good reason to do what he did.
Which brings me to the characters, who also contain hidden depths – sometimes hidden even from themselves. But I absolutely adored Krona and Melanie! They’re wonderful people and wonderful characters. Krona has idolised her big sister for their entire lives, became a Regulator because Lia did, and has no interest in the spotlight so long as she can be there for Lia.
Maybe she was just a shadow, a follower – whatever Tray thought of her. But there was one good thing about treading closely in someone else’s footsteps: when they stumbled, you were right there to pick them back up again.
Her relationship with her sister is a bright, shining thread woven throughout the book, but Krona doesn’t need to be held against Lia to be interesting: she has a strong sense of right and wrong, is stubborn and determined, but also has an endearing shyness when it comes to talking about her private wishes and dreams. One of the sweetest moments was when we learn that she has a whole shelf of tiny clockwork toys because that’s what she uses to pay one of her informers – he doesn’t realise she’s gathered a small trove of them just for him. (And Thierry, the informer, is another fabulous character, whose frank self-awareness is such a refreshing change from male characters who think they’re the gods’ gift to the world! It might be a bit strange to love a character who readily admits to being a coward, but – I love that he knows that about himself and isn’t ashamed of it.)
If Krona has a tough exterior but an inner softness, Melanie is the opposite; more feminine than Krona, her softness could easily be mistaken for weakness, but there’s steel beneath her careful manners, and a refusal to accept that the world won’t bend when she needs it to. Her life revolves around her mother, who is terminally ill, and her filial devotion is pretty humbling. I loved how her love and care for her mother morphed into a desire to help others who are ill; she’s fundamentally another good person, although I think one who might be more ruthless – in the name of practicality – than Krona, despite their disparate stations in life.
And Chabron…poor Chabron. For those concerned about the gore – there is some, but we never see him with his victims, only the aftermath (which is bad enough). But his plotline is the most… I want to say subversive. The one that challenges the reader’s expectations, and the society he lives in, more than any other. But is he wrong? Is someone lying, and if so, who? About what?
What is going on?
This isn’t about fantasy police. It’s about the very nature of magic, where it exists and what it can do. It’s about the time tax, where the poor die young and only the richest live into their wanton 80s. It’s about the gifts the gods gave and the conspiracy to hide them, steal them. It’s about secret cults and impossible enchantments.
It’s about the world everyone knows not being the real world at all.
I’m so happy that I ignored the blurb and gave this a try. The attention to detail, the strangeness, the enchanted gemstones and the beautiful masks, the layers upon layers of story – I loved this book. I love the world Lostetter’s created, I love her prose, I love how different it is. I’m going to be thinking about it for a long time, and looking forward to the sequel. It’s definitely going to be one of my favourite reads of 2021, and I think it could be for a lot of other people too.
TL;DR: If you want fantasy like you’ve never seen it before? Then preorder Helm of Midnight, because it won’t disappoint.