Series: Even the Darkest Stars #1
Published by Balzer + Bray on September 5th, 2017
Kamzin has always dreamed of becoming one of the Emperor’s royal explorers, the elite climbers tasked with mapping the wintry, mountainous Empire and spying on its enemies. She knows she could be the best in the world, if only someone would give her a chance.
But everything changes when the mysterious and eccentric River Shara, the greatest explorer ever known, arrives in her village and demands to hire Kamzin—not her older sister Lusha, as everyone had expected—for his next expedition. This is Kamzin’s chance to prove herself—even though River’s mission to retrieve a rare talisman for the emperor means climbing Raksha, the tallest and deadliest mountain in the Aryas. Then Lusha sets off on her own mission to Raksha with a rival explorer who is determined to best River, and Kamzin must decide what’s most important to her: protecting her sister from the countless perils of the climb or beating her to the summit.
The challenges of climbing Raksha are unlike anything Kamzin expected—or prepared for—with avalanches, ice chasms, ghosts, and even worse at every turn. And as dark secrets are revealed, Kamzin must unravel the truth of their mission and of her companions—while surviving the deadliest climb she has ever faced.
I had such a strange experience reading Even the Darkest Stars. I’m absolutely not the kind of reader who enjoys journey books. They’re just not for me. But when I picked this up–on a whim because the cover had been calling my name–I was pleasantly surprised. Of course, things went south in the middle for me, and it wasn’t perfect at all. But all told I definitely liked this more than I thought I would.
Even the Darkest Stars relies heavily on its setting, and its setting is easily its best feature. The main character, Kamzin, lives in a tiny mountain village called Amziri in a small chain of mountains near the hulking Everest-like peak called Raksha. No one has ever reached its summit and lived to tell the tale, but that’s exactly where Kamzin is headed when she joins the party of the Royal Explorer, River Shara. River has been tasked by the emperor to map Raksha’s terrain, and Kamzin is to be his guide. The descriptions of this setting were stunning. It was summer during their voyage, but at this high altitude, it’s cold and snowy and the winds are blustering and brutal. There are dangerous crevasses, boulders, glaciers, tightly packed forests and spiking mountain peaks. Kamzin is an expert climber, reaching places possibly no other human had tread before, and I had no problem at all imagining these picturesque views in my head as Kamzin described them. There were storms and avalanches and bird-human hybrid monsters. I really felt like I was there with the characters and that’s really what I want from a book like this.
As for the characters, I really liked Kamzin. She wasn’t perfect or great at everything she tried. She had absolutely no magical skills at all, even in this world where everyone had access to magic. She also makes a ton of mistakes, even in the things she’s good at, but they’re never the kind of stupid, careless mistakes that aggravate me as a reader. Instead, Kamzin is tasked with this impossible climb, and so there will be blunders. It all felt natural. I wasn’t extremely impressed with her relationship with her best friend Tem, though. I was definitely was in the beginning, but as things wore on, it became kind of a love triangle. Not really on Kamzin’s part, just Tem’s. But it felt unnecessary. I did however like that she and Tem had dated in the past but realized they weren’t meant to be together in that way. It was very refreshing to see a relationship evolve like that.
I really wanted more of Lusha, Kamzin’s older sister. In the beginning of the novel, Lusha takes off on a hike of her own, racing Kamzin to Raksha’s summit. I immediately wanted to know what was going on with her, why she would commit such a betrayal, and what “thing” she was trying to work out in her star charts. Lusha’s character was so intriguing to me. She is slated to become the village Elder after their father. She has two raven familiars. She is beguiling and cold and like I said, she reads the stars, mapping out people’s pasts, presents, and futures, even whole families. I really, really hope we get to see more of her in the future.
The world-building felt a little scarce to me. We’re aware that Kamzin lives in the Empire and the ruler and most people live in the Three Cities. We also know about the witches who live in the Nightwood, whose magic was bound by the emperor after years of war. But Kamzin has seen so little of the world, and it being first person, the reader’s knowledge was similarly lacking. The end definitely throws some twists our way when it comes to the world, though. Some were predictable, some less so. I’d also like a more proper explanation of the magic. This world has shamans, who use talismans to conduct their magic; this world also has witches, who do not need such tools. There are healing herbs, incantations, fire demons, bird-like monsters, ghosts, and the emperor who has somehow beaten mortality and is something like 200 years old. There is just so much in this world and while I feel like we did get to see a lot of it, I want more. I want to know how all these things relate to one another and how they work.
Like I said earlier, I don’t like journey books, so I was bound to not love this one. Around 50% through, things started to drag. It took the group a long time to reach the base of Raksha. I know the author wanted to show us how arduous of a task this really was, and to show us how much danger they were in. But it just took so long. There was also a lot of focus on repetitive things between Kamzin and Tem, and a lot of glossing over Kamzin and River’s relationship. So much between the two was summarized. We got a lot of full scenes and conversations between Kamzin and Tem, but when it came to her time with River, we just got a lot of recaps. And even though the setting was beautiful, there is a limit to how many walls of text I can read in one go, so I started to skim a lot. Another thing I didn’t love was this huge monologue we got toward the end. It wasn’t a villain’s monologue, so it could have been worse. But the character was telling a story from memory and the way he was telling it seemed so constructed. It wasn’t told in a way that anyone actually speaks. And it went on and on for pages.
I wish I had fallen head over heels for this book like I thought I would once I started reading. However, despite its beautiful setting and compelling main character, I couldn’t love Even the Darkest Stars as much as I wanted to. But with the plot twists and promising world-building, I definitely intend to read the sequel.