I'll admit, it took me longer than I intended to get to this book, between writing The Ruin of Snow, and then moving on short notice and losing the book itself halfway through reading. But the concept of royal necromancers and a kingdom ruled by the undead is just too cool not to finish even with a several month gap in the middle, so I've been bingeing my way through the rest of Reign of the Fallen over the last week or so.
Without the dead, she'd be no one.
Odessa is one of Karthia's master necromancers, catering to the kingdom's ruling Dead. Whenever a noble dies, it's Odessa's job to raise them by retrieving their soul from a dreamy and dangerous shadow world called the Deadlands. But there is a cost to being raised: the Dead must remain shrouded. If even a hint of flesh is exposed, a grotesque transformation begins, turning the Dead into terrifying, bloodthirsty Shades.
A dramatic uptick in Shade attacks raises suspicions and fears around the kingdom. Soon, a crushing loss of one of her closest companions leaves Odessa shattered, and reveals a disturbing conspiracy in Karthia: Someone is intentionally creating Shades by tearing shrouds from the Dead--and training them to attack. Odessa is forced to contemplate a terrifying question: What if her magic is the weapon that brings the kingdom to its knees?
Fighting alongside her fellow mages--and a powerful girl as enthralling as she is infuriating--Odessa must untangle the gruesome plot to destroy Karthia before the Shades take everything she loves.
Review: The first thing that struck me about this book was the world it's set in. Karthia is a kingdom that avoids the rest of the world, and while that's not a new concept, its reasoning is: Karthia is ruled by an undead king and fears the change the living bring. With necromancers serving the nobility--raising them from the dead for payment, while the poor must say goodbye permanently--and a fascinating magic system where eye color determines one's magical ability, I was hooked in on setting alone. The plot is thrilling from the start, unafraid to tackle gruesome and heartbreaking moments right in with victories as the conspiracy Odessa is working to unravel gets increasingly more dangerous and complicated. It's helped along by Marsh's writing, which beautifully brings to life and explores the power and nuances of grief, vengeance, fear, and guilt. I'll be honest, I'm jotting down a few notes on how to pull off grief for a project of my own. While some of the characters came off a little flat and underdeveloped at times and I wish I knew more about them, I'm giving it some leeway, as this is book 1 of a series and I see the potential to fully embrace them in later books.
Unfortunately, the thing that ruined the book for me was the romance. I love a good ship, but it felt incredibly forced and rushed to me. It didn't fit with the rest of Odessa's character or her arc throughout the story, and it sort of came across to me like Marsh felt the need to insert a romance for the sake of romance, so did when the story didn't actually need one. It seriously detracted from what was otherwise a fantastic story and made it harder for me to look forward to what would happen next. I loved the inclusion of an openly bisexual protagonist without the story focusing around her sexuality--and I have absolutely no problem with a same-sex ship, bring it on--but in a way that became a crutch to justify the relationship that didn't really have believable chemistry and almost edged into bisexual stereotype category. This book leaves me worried that it'll go fully in that direction through the rest of the series, but I haven't read further so I can't say it does. The platonic relationships in this book are the ones that shine, and I wish the author had stuck to exploring those in more depth.
Will I read Book 2? I haven't decided yet. I'd love to learn more about the world and see where things go from the (honestly pretty awesome, in a lot of ways) ending, so maybe I'll cautiously continue. But we'll see.