Publishing a fantasy book with a narrative set against a harrowing backdrop of plague, in the middle of the pandemic, you’d think would be a questionable choice for an author to make. But as Makiia Lucier’s author’s note says, she felt it was important to show young readers a glimpse of the past – a historical fantasy past in this case – when people carried on despite hardship. I think she pulls this off brilliantly.
Year of the Reaper is a story about hope. Or rather, it is a story that showcases the courage and affection that survivors of a horrific disease have for one another, the camaraderie, and how far the depths of a person’s loyalty goes – even when the truth might cost someone their life.
What is it about?
The novel follows Lord Cas, a Oliveran nobleman who was wrongfully imprisoned for three years in Brisas – a neighbouring kingdom, in a country torn by war between the two nations. Now eighteen, liberated by the plague that ravages the land, he returns to his hometown, Palmerin, to find it at peace with a King upon a throne, and a new Queen by his side. Yet when an attempt is made on the royal couple’s son’s life, it sets off a chain of chaotic events where Cas finds himself on a journey to catch the would-be assassin.
The opening scene of the book set me up nicely for the horror, mystery and intrigue that unfolded in the following chapters. In about 4 pages, Lucier had pulled me in with her descriptive, yet easy to read prose and a cliffhanger that meant I had to read on.
Her narrative and worldbuilding is effortless. We see the world through the eyes of a broken and reforged young man, relieved at being home, but also desperate to fit in again and solve this threat. There is a lot of deeply rooted, gripping personal trauma that seeps into every scene, showing believably close-knit relationships between characters – including a nice slowburn romance between Cas with the palace historian, Lena. Cas and his brother Ventillas’ relationship particularly got to me (perfect if you like reading about protective sibling dynamics, as I do).
This is also a book that doesn’t shy away from showing the horrors a nationwide illness can inflict on a community. Done in a way that is just enough to be frightening, there’s a post-apocalyptic feel to the setting that I really enjoyed reading.
“We are not promised a long life, Cassia. Just a life. Take what happiness you can. Hold tight to it.”
The pacing, whilst one of the stronger parts of this novel – we uncover secrets when Cas does in a way that is shocking and captivating in equal measure – felt off kilter towards the end. The reveals were a little too rushed and macabre (cw: female mutilation) for my liking, yet Lucier manages to pull all the threads together and solve the mystery in a way that does the whole book justice.
I also thought some of this setting stretched a little too thin. Really interesting supernatural elements that are brought up – the fact that Cas can see and speak to ghosts and has done so since he survived the plague, for one – are then never really explained other than it just *happened*. And whilst Cas uses some of this ghost talking to his advantage, it never directly interacts with the main plot – just enough to be creepy (while enjoyable, I really wanted to see more of this).
An unsettling, compelling standalone fantasy book, I thoroughly enjoyed unravelling the mystery Lucier puts on the page. Year of the Reaper is a novel with complex and deep character relationships and a dash of bloody horror to keep you hooked. This is definitely worth a read.