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ARC provided by the publisher—Tor Books—in exchange for an honest review.
Cover art illustrated by: Sam Weber
The Helm of Midnight by Marina J. Lostetter
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Series: The Five Penalties (Book #1 of 3)
Genre: Fantasy, High Fantasy, Mystery, Thriller
Pages: 464 pages (Kindle edition)
Published: 13th April 2021 by Tor Books
This is an incredible book. Character-driven and bloody thrilling; The Helm of Midnight has pretty much confirmed its spot in one of my favorite books of 2021 list.
I owe a thank you to Andrea Stewart, the author of The Bone Shard Daughter, for recommending this book to me. I was already intrigued by the eerie cover art illustrated by Sam Weber, and it was her endorsement that really push me to read The Helm of Midnight amidst my ever-growing TBR pile. I don’t regret it one bit. This was my first time reading Lostetter’s book, and I’m undoubtedly impressed, especially because this is her fantasy novel; her previous books were all sci-fi if I’m not mistaken. Lostetter herself described The Helm of Midnight as The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris meets Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson; I can confirm that this isn’t a far-off pitch, and I loved it.
Unraveling: that’s what it feels like. The more I try to wind the lengths of my life into a neat, manageable knot, the more they seem to stretch and fray and snap. Order is not easy. Breaking takes less effort than building, that is the way of the world.
The Helm of Midnight, the first book in The Five Penalties trilogy, opens with a daring and deadly heist. The perpetrator managed to steal a dangerous artifact of terrible power: the death mask of Louis Charbon. Louis Charbon was once known as the most terrifying serial murderer, and this death mask created by a master craftsman being stolen means that someone might have the power to channel Louis Charbon’s abilities when they wear the death mask. Now it’s up to Krona, De-Lia, and their fellow Regulars to find out the thieves, the truth behind this heist, and Louis Charbon himself.
As you can probably guess, investigations is a huge part of the narrative in The Helm of Midnight. The terror and mayhem unleashed by Louis Charbon were frankly terrifying; it made me wonder what kind of research the author has done to successfully write massacres in such a vividly horrifying detail. Yes, this is quite a dark book, and if you’re not into reading grim books, you might be better off skipping this one. However, as evil blooms in darkness, The Helm of Midnight was an amazing read to me not because of its attention to murder, yes that’s a part of it, but more importantly it was the magnificent characterizations that immersed me into the narrative so much.
“Nothing can stop a man who thinks his violence is not only justified, but the epitome of virtue.”
This is, at its core, a story about faith, trauma, family, and duty. The characterizations are the key factors that made these themes worked so good. Even when the pacing considerably slowed down in the middle of the book, I never felt bored because I’ve grown attached and invested in finding out the fates of these characters. The story is told through the perspective of three main characters in a different time frame. First, we have Krona in the present timeframe who deals with the plotline I mentioned earlier; her story took some time for me to fully enjoy. Eventually, I became attached to Krona’s character development and the well-written sibling relationship she has with her sister: De-Lia; the complexity and love between the two characters as sisters really shine through the pages.
“They’d wanted to protect each other so much, sometimes they’d forgotten what they were protecting.”
And then we have Melanie’s chapters that take place two years before the current event. I will admit that I was worried that her chapters won’t matter much to Krona’s story; it just seemed disconnected at first, and I thought this would be one of those cases where a character was introduced, but their story won’t connect until the sequel. Obviously, I couldn’t be more wrong. That’s all I can say about this, though, you have to find out for yourself. In Melanie’s POV, Lostetter also exhibited her talent in writing a romantic relationship that’s so wonderfully done.
’“It’s not just about what I want,” she said with a sigh. “We take actions in life, and there are consequences. Those consequences narrow our choices. Time makes us walk a straight path between where we’ve been and where we are now. There’s no changing it.”
“But new decisions mean new consequences and new choices,” he said softly. “We’re never locked into one path. Time also allows us free will. She never freezes our future.”’
And finally—my favorite of the three POV characters—we have Louis Charbon himself; his chapters start eleven years before Krona’s story. This POV, y’all… It exceeded my expectations. I recently read a manga series called Shuumatsu no Valkyrie (Record of Ragnarok in English), and the similarity to Jack the Ripper found in Louis Charbon’s reputation reminded me of reading Jack the Ripper’s story in that manga. I’m giving a self-standing (yes, I’m standing right now) ovation to Lostetter with Louis Charbon’s origin story. THIS is the one that gives the necessary extra depth to the novel. Does eternal malice accompany Louis Charbon since his birth? Is he really the personification of death? Again, read and find out for yourself. Suffice to say that I was absolutely compelled with his chapters; reading about the internal and external conflicts he has between loving his family and executing his duty to the Unknown God was heartbreaking, disturbing, and unputdownable.
“People are more complex than that. Evil has its logics, just as good does. I need to understand Charbon to understand this killer.”
Three different characters with three different timelines and all connect with each other to bring a great result. Plus, The Helm of Midnight has one of the most despicable villains I’ve ever read. Lostetter’s prose felt so well-polished, and the full force of the horror and nightmare that the characters felt can truly be felt. I seriously love books with characters that made me feel; Lostetter’s capability to describe emotions—especially pain, anguish, and regret—was incredible. I could really feel the character’s emotions. And speaking of emotions, the magic in this novel revolves around emotions, and it also reminded me of the magic system in Mistborn; without the explosive actions. There’s quite a lot to unpack here; I’m just going to mention them briefly. People with an affinity for wearing a death mask have the power to channel the abilities and memories that comes with wearing one; each death mask has its own level of Magnitude, Tier, and abilities, with its own benefits and drawbacks. Then there’s also the concept of Enchantments and emotion stones, and more.
“Real time is far more valuable than bottled time. It has a better exchange rate. I decided I wanted to spend mine as productively as possible, get the biggest payout I could. That way, when I’m close to dying, I won’t feel the need to cash in—to lay on extra days, or months, or years. Because I won’t have any regrets. I think only people who waste their lives scrape for those extra minutes.”
Dark, immersive, and bloodstained, The Helm of Midnight provides an emotionally manipulative reading experience that I enjoyed. Although this is the first book in a trilogy, it worked nicely as a standalone. I have a difficult time classifying what kind of sub-genre this novel belongs in; it’s a novel with a lot of ideas implemented, and I’m curious to find out how the author will improve on these ideas in the sequels. The Helm of Midnight is partly urban fantasy, high fantasy, thriller, and mystery with a touch of steampunk, and Lostetter combined them into one package with frightening accuracy. It’s different from the kind of epic/high fantasy books I usually read, and I know this won’t work for everyone, but it really did for me and I hope it will for you as well. Last but not least, I’ll close this review with an important message from the author herself:
“And thank you to everyone who picked up this book, especially the readers who are struggling—whether it be through external battles or internal ones. As krona pointed out, despair always lies, and no one should be expected to work through depression, anxiety, or a catastrophe alone.”—Marina J. Lostetter
Official release date: 13th April 2021
The quotes in this review were taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.
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