Last Updated on February 14, 2024
Karl Forshaw’s debut novel Renia is without a doubt one of the most exciting, unique and fresh takes on a fantasy story I have ever read. It’s an alluring genre-blendy gem of a book that defies expectations, expertly mixing fantasy with mystery, and then adding in some enticing dystopia, horror, and steampunk(ish) elements that will keep you on your toes. And while I realise that all might sound like a lot, Forshaw honestly just makes it work so well and executes this story to perfection.
In a time long past, a cataclysmic event known as the Moonfall created a mysterious and irradiated crater called the Moonwastes, where dangerously powerful Lightstones are scattered all across the land. Renia grew up in that desolate place, but now she spends her days peacefully transcribing books and hunting for knowledge in the grand Halls of Venn. That is, until the coveted book that was recently assigned to her gets stolen, setting off a course of chaotic events that puts Renia down a disturbingly dark path full of mysteries, secrets, and painful self-discovery.
Right from the moment I started reading Renia, I just fell head over heels in love with its alluring air of mystery and intrigue. The book is divided up into three seamlessly connected parts, with the story steadily getting darker and more complex as you make your way through. In Part 1, we mainly focus on the titular character Renia, and intimately get to know her as all her virtues and vices are on full display. She might not be the most likeable character, yet I just couldn’t help but root for her despite all her flaws.
What made Renia’s story so compelling to me, is that we are not just told about the tragic past that haunts her, but we get to experience it first-hand through dark flashbacks that are interspersed throughout the present timeline. Not only did this establish a deep emotional connection from the get-go, but it also immediately set the tone and showcased just how brutal life in this world is. Actions are proven to have serious consequences, so the stakes just felt sky-high from the very start.
Over the course of the story, we are slowly introduced to more and more intriguing and enigmatic characters who get their own POV as they become entangled in the confounding mystery surrounding the stolen tome. Cue the chaos, deadly assassins, dangerous schemes, magical mayhem, brutal betrayals, and devastating sacrifices.
The scope of the world also smoothly and gradually expands, yet the story never becomes overwhelming because of its grounded, intimate, and character-focused storytelling. Each of these characters really gets their moment to shine, and they all have an important role to play in the story. The compelling character dynamics had me glued to the page, and I just loved sinking my teeth into all the messy, complex, endearing, heartbreaking, and just beautifully human relationships that lie at the heart of Renia.
One of my favourite aspects of Renia is the fact that it is just so masterfully crafted, with the characters’ personal inner conflicts tying seamlessly into the overarching mystery plot that drives this narrative forward. This book features some of the most gripping and surprising character arcs that I have ever come across, and I love that Forshaw isn’t afraid to take risks and go down some dark paths. Themes of mental health, identity, loss, motherhood, (found) family, and belonging are all explored in such a delicate and authentic way, which only made this story more emotionally impactful.
Now, if it wasn’t already clear, Renia is a deeply character-driven narrative, yet it has also got so much more to offer than just brilliant character work. In fact, I think the highlight of the book might actually have been the incredibly captivating, immersive, and simply exquisite world building for me. The world of Luna Ruinam is alluring, bewildering, mystifying, exciting, and slightly weird in the best way possible.
For the most part, this feels like a familiar and expected fantasy setting, but then suddenly all kinds of fascinating dystopia and steampunk elements start being introduced. So, not only do we have a riveting mystery plot driving the narrative forward, but the world building itself is also shrouded in mysteries, which I just absolutely adored. Treasures of lost civilizations and advanced technology pop up left and right (hello coffee machines and airships!), which leaves you wondering about the history and true nature of this world and universe.
And while I am generally not much of a visual reader at all, this mesmerising world just came to life in my mind’s eye through Forshaw’s immaculate, vivid, evocative, and even haunting descriptions. From the mystical and magical moonstones to all kinds of eldritch horrors, everything about this world just captured my imagination in a way that I totally wasn’t prepared for.
Even though we don’t get to see much of this world outside of the contained setting of the Halls of Venn in this first book, I am honestly so ready to discover and explore this mysterious and enthralling world in all its glory as the series continues.
Renia was just utterly captivating from start to finish, and with a debut that’s this bold and strong, I have no doubt that Forshaw is going to be an author to watch!
While Renia is truly unlike anything I have ever read, I think fans of Mark Lawrence’s The Book That Wouldn’t Burn and China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station will be in for a real treat here. If you like the sound of a dark and genre-blendy fantasy story with character-focused storytelling, a contained institution setting, surprising character arcs, riveting mysteries, mystifying world building, and immersive and evocative prose, then Renia is the perfect fit for you.
Thank you to the author for providing me with an eARC in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.