I’ve seen it written of both Noir/Hardboiled and Westerns that the genre died as soon as it became self-aware. I think we can safely say the same about Grimdark. I almost DNF’d Nevernight. It’s not by accident that the only DNF Review I have thus far on the site is another Grimdark tale. And it’s not by accident that Nevernight only really works when it starts worrying less about presenting itself as Grimdark than about telling its story.
It’s ultimately saved because it’s got a damned good story to tell and because Kristoff has the skill to tell it (I wound up giving Nevernight the same number of stars as Kristoff’s debut, Stormdancer, due to issues I’ll get more into below, but five novels in Kristoff is obviously a more confident, skilled storyteller). At ten years old, Mia Corvere’s world falls apart when her grandee father is executed as a traitor. Six years later she’s ready to take the next step in getting revenge by training as an assassin at the Red Church.
“You’ll be a rumor. A whisper. The thought that wakes the bastards of this world sweating in the nevernight. The last you will ever be in this world, girl, is someone’s hero.”
Mercurio handed back the blade.
“But you will be a girl heroes fear.”
I love this cover, by the way. It’s absolutely gorgeous for one. And it’s perfect for the book. The cut of her slacks, the pinstripes, the knife all emphasize Mia’s crotch and the sex and romance in the book. The bloody knife, bloody gloves, blood splattered on Mia’s arms and mask, the blood red font all allude to the violence within. Her shadow hints at her powers. Even the mask is important and appropriate.
Mia is our standard dystopian YA female protagonist. Only she isn’t. She’s very much the motive force behind the story. She wants revenge and she’s willing to do whatever it takes to get it. The rest of the world is disinterested. For now. You get the feeling her actions are going to play a large part in things really getting epic later in the series. She’s all sass on the surface, but Kristoff starts peeling back the layers soon enough.
Tric plays the role of standard YA love interest and is the closest thing to a second main character the book gets. Only a few of the other acolytes or masters (shahiid) get fleshed out as characters, one flaw of Nevernight, albeit a small one.
Mia’s quest for revenge takes her to the Red Church, or Hogwarts for assassins. It all owes more than a little to the House of Black and White and the Many-Faced God, but any derivativeness is outweighed by much greater development. An assassin school is about as deadly as you would expect assassin school to be—most of the original acolytes don’t survive the process. Kristoff doesn’t hide that any assassin cult—religious trappings or no—is going to attract some cruel and callous people. They’re surprisingly liberal about allowing backtalk and shenanigans, though, so there’s that.
It’s refreshing and a neat trick that that we get the Wizarding School trope without it actually being a wizarding school. It’s a school for assassins; Mia’s . . . gifts will come in mighty handy for an assassin, but there is nowhere there who can give her direction. Mia, you see, is a darkin, someone with the ability to manipulate shadows. She can grab someone with their own shadow, wrap herself in shadows to hide, and is accompanied everywhere by a cat familiar who is literally a shadow. And, it turns out, she has the ability to do much more. Kristoff also does some of his best writing in describing Mia’s powers:
Mia reached out and took hold of the shadows about her. Thread by thread, she drew the darkness to her with clever fingers, like a seamstress weaving a cloak—a cloak over which unwary eyes might lose their way.
A cloak of shadows.
There are other sorts of magic present, but mostly hinted at. Including a rather inventive form a long-distance travel that is Grimdark without being clumsy about it.
We don’t get to dive into the setting yet, but it’s another highlight. It’s very Roman Republic/Empire-esque. The deserts surrounding the Red Church call to mind a fallen Ancient Egypt, only surrounded by deadly magical artifacts and sand kraken. Mia’s childhood apartment was literally carved into the rib of some fallen god, rising with its brethren like fantasy skyscrapers over the city. The three suns and almost nevernight are almost gimmicky, but do effect in real ways the society of Nevernight and play their own role in the plot.
There’s a lot of cool stuff in all that, but it isn’t all good. As I mentioned in my intro, I almost put Nevernight down. The attempts to be edgy—explicit violence with a side of viscera and pointless sex—are too obvious, too clumsy, too forced. Ostensibly narrated by Mia’s former shahiid, his earthy tone threw me off at first, although I got used to it rather quickly. Kristoff also rather oddly peppers the book with footnotes (or maybe endnotes, hard to tell from the Kindle version). These are, as a rule, bits of worldbuilding that could have been killed and can be skipped. My only other quibble are occasional bouts of idiot ball, or twists that require the reader to buying into characters grabbing the idiot ball (I think some writers think this is good storytelling, but I’m not a fan). Thankfully, this stuff either recedes as the book progresses or you just stop noticing it. It hardly needs salvaging by that point, but a twist in the backstory and a twist in the main story stick the lovely knife in and twist with grim gusto. I loved it.
And it works both as a standalone and as the setup for an epic fantasy series.
4 of 5 Stars.
Disclosure: I received a complimentary advance copy of Nevernight via NetGalley.
 Even the all-white dagger matches the description of the stiletto carved from a god’s rib bone that she carries.
 Nevernight is a little too grim and a little too dark to be YA, but it avails itself freely of YA tropes.
 Characters get the development necessary, if seldom any more.
 I guess. I’ve never read the Harry Potter books. Shush.
 The analogy to the Assassins from the medieval Middle East seems obvious but just occurred to me.
 Shouldn’t there be a three-body problem?
 There is a lot of this. Usually involving testicles. Often buried in the footnotes. Meta.
 Told throughout through mostly pointless flashbacks saved by how they start and how they end.