I must admit, I am very late to the Jay Kristoff book party. I had bought Nevernight years ago when it was nominated for a Gemmell Award but it had been sitting in the middle of my to-be-read pile since and I had (until recently) always picked up something else instead. The mystical Instagram algorithm suggested Jay Kristoff as someone I might want to follow just before the release of his Empire of the Vampire and I pre-ordered that within minutes of seeing his posts. That tome broke my heart in the way only great grimdark can and has topped my favourite reads of the year. I wanted more. So Nevernight jumped to the top of my reading list and I should have read it years ago; it is a stroke of genius.
The first of The Nevernight Chronicle trilogy, Nevernight is an embedded story with a currently unknown chronicler writing a biography of the legendry assassin, Mia Corvere. I thought I had worked out who the narrator was, but I was wrong. In fact, every time I thought I had worked out where the plot of Nevernight was going, I was wrong. It was frustratingly brilliant in that way. All that we know about the narrator is that they loved Mia and want theirs to be the ‘true’ account of her escapades. I loved the writing style of having an anonymous omniscient narrator recounting Mia’s tale and a favourite eccentricity in it is the footnotes. Sprinkled around the novel are extra titbits of detail, either about Mia, the history of Kristoff’s world, or just a one liner from the unknown storyteller. I found them fascinating and a distinctive way to world build as it is entirely up to each reader if they take the time to segue in to the footnote and back or not. I have not come across in text references being used this way in a novel before, and it really added to the sense that this was meant to be read as profile of Mia.
As well as Nevernight being the first instalment in the record of Mia Corvere’s life, it has a dual narrative within it. The text switches to italics when showing a past experience, and the roman typography indicates the more recent events. In the first chapter I found the timeline jumps jarring, but easily settled in to it and as the novel progresses the switches are more spaced out and feel more natural. Most of the past events being recounted are from Mia’s childhood and her introduction to the cruel realities of her world with the execution of her father and the many ensuing traumas. The narrative up until Mia is in her mid-teens mostly takes place in the city of Godsgrave in Republic of Itreya, which feels like a collision of medieval Venice with canals and masquerades with the political intrigue and military establishment of ancient Rome. As with the dual narrative, the power structure and the religion Kristoff has created took a little getting used to, but this is where I personally found the footnotes very helpful. It gave me the detail I needed to understand the world without lengthy exposition bogging the main text down.
The contemporary timeline follows sixteen year old Mia as she seeks training at the Red Church of Itreya, a boarding school for assassins where the entrance fee is a body part of your choice from a murderer who you have murdered. Lessons include the expected hand to hand combat but also the ‘subtle arts’ of seduction and secrets. If Mia survives her schooling, she will become an anointed initiate in a cult of cold hearted killers and skilled enough to exact her revenge on the corrupt politicians who are responsible for destroying her family. A task that is harder than it seems when not only are many of the lessons potentially deadly, but someone keeps on literally killing off members of the cohort.
Please do not let the scholastic setting, or Jay Kristoff’s other works, make anyone considering Nevernight think it is a young adult novel. Mia may only be sixteen, but she drinks, smokes, swears, has sex, and stabs in vivid detail from the first chapter. This is absolutely an adult grimdark novel and it is unflinchingly graphic in places. I am excited to read the next offering in the trilogy, but I do think that Nevernight can be enjoyed as a standalone novel. It had so many of the things I loved about Empire of the Vampire (no talking sword, but there is a cat made of shadows) and I regret that it took me so many years to pick it up. Jay Kristoff is a master wordsmith and the world of Nevernight and the life of the deliciously flawed Mia Covere is one I look forward to returning to. I thoroughly recommend it. 4/5.