Not going to lie, this book took me a second to truly get into. Could be because I read it following Crescent City, which I still have not recovered from. Once I finally did get into it, I enjoyed the unique story it brought to life and the political undertone that it had.
The story takes place in 1889, and I think Roshani Chokshi does a great job running this story parallel to real life events. It takes place in an alternate reality to our own history, with magic and technology far different that what actually happened in real life. From my understanding, there is the Order of Babel, which pursues historical artifacts for their own keeping. In France, there are four houses that belong to the Order: House Kore, House Nyx, House Vanth, and the Fallen House. I had a hard time picturing exactly what the magic, or Forging, in this world looked like. I wish the author spent a little bit more time talking about how forging became a thing, why certain people have forging abilities, and what it all means. I feel like we as readers were given facts stating that Forging was a thing and that was that… which is fine, but it did hold me back from immersing myself within the story.
I also wish we got more insight into the four Houses, and maybe more of a history lesson on them. We do get snippets of information regarding Severin’s upbringing, and how he had “seven fathers”. These glimpses into his past just added to my confusion. When his father passed away, Severin was administered the blood test to see if he could claim the patriarch title to the House of Vanth, and it came back negative… and then it sounds like Severin and Tristan were passed around from house to house until Severin became of age to access the inheritance left behind for him. I get it, his father was a French aristocrat and it sounds to me like Severin himself was a bastard if he couldn’t acknowledge his own mother. I know Hypnos was, as he mentions how his father met his mother in Haiti. It’s why Severin doesn’t like Hypnos, because he was picked to be the only patriarch of mixed decent. He thinks they didn’t allow him to become a patriarch because they can only allow one mixed person in the Order. So Severin was passed around from house to house with Tristan, who is not his brother but a brother in arms… and he named the seven fathers after the seven deadly sins. He also added people to his repertoire, including Enrique (a historian from the Philippines), Laila (she deserves her own paragraph), and Zofia (an engineer of sorts who can Forge objects). Together they all form this band of thieves, working to restore Severin’s title as the House of Vanth patriarch.
Laila is confusing because she has an ability that no one else has… she can read the history and memories an object holds. Quite handy. However, as we learn more about her past I got confused… she was created?! It sounds like she was a stillborn child, her parents went to a magic man and asked for him to bring her to life, and bam, Laila is brought to life. Freaky. Her father definitely thinks so, and when her mother died he told her she wouldn’t live past nineteen if she didn’t find a spell to preserve her life. Honestly, she’s really cool and I think her story line was unique. It was also one of the most explained within this whole book, so maybe that’s why I liked her enough. Her pining after Severin was also entertaining, and it really kept me going to the end of the story.
One thing that drives me absolutely insane is when authors don’t describe their characters right down to the smallest detail. I want to know who I’m picturing right away, otherwise who’s story am I reading? I don’t care what they look like, as long as I know what they look like. I literally thought of Tristan as a faceless being for the longest time because I had no clue what he looked like. The person who was described the most was maybe Hypnos, who we know is breathtakingly handsome with his dark skin and blue eyes. I even tried to look up fan art to get more visual clues, but there really isn’t a whole lot of art out there. Like I said, vague character descriptions drive me nuts. I think the only time it’s useful to have extremely vague characters is when books get turned into on-screen adaptations. They can pick whoever to be a character because there are no rules to follow.
Where this book fell short on character descriptions, it made up for in environmental descriptions. Each room was so vividly described that I could definitely see it within my mind. It truly made me long for this beautiful alternate universe, where there could be reasons why colonialism happened. Those reasons being magical gain and power through Forged artifacts… contrary to the racism and anti-Semitism that actually fueled the history of the world. I encourage those who read this book to also read the author’s note. “History is a myth shaped by the tongues of conquerors.” This book definitely sought to bring notice to an era that was painted as a magical time in history… when the ugly truth was hidden behind the fake beauty. It serves as a reminder to us all that our history is not what it seems, and we should “question what is gold and what glitters.”