#WyrdAndWonder Book Review: The Helm of Midnight by Marina Lostetter
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Series: Book 1 of The Five Penalties
Publisher: Tor Books (April 13, 2021)
Length: 464 pages
Author Information: Website
The Helm of Midnight is rich, dark, and atmospheric, but everything that made it such an immersive and mysterious read also worked against it at times, leading me to have mixed feelings about the book.
The story is told through multiple POVs and timelines, and we first begin with an introduction to Krona Hirvath as she and her fellow Regulators must solve the curious theft of a death mask belonging to Louis Charbon, the most notorious serial killer to ever stalked the streets of Lutador. What made it such a powerful and dangerous object is the fact that Charbon’s memories and abilities can be accessed and channeled by someone in possession of the mask, which is a frightening thought indeed. Not only that, another deadly artifact was also stolen during the heist, a jeweled brooch that is said to be steeped in so much negative energy, it would drive a wearer to take their own life. Needless to say, recovering these two items is of the highest priority for the Regulators, and Krona will be racing against the clock to find out who stole them, and why.
Meanwhile, in chapters that take place a few years before the present, readers also get to meet Melanie, a young girl from the country has recently arrived in the city to track down an enchanted mask which she hopes would help heal her mother. However, her plans do not go as she expected at all, and before long, Melanie is in way over her head, dealing with something far beyond her naïve comprehension. And finally, in a surprising twist, we are given a glimpse into the tortured mind of the serial killer himself, Louis Charbon. His perspective is one of the story’s main threads, as chapter by chapter, the horrifying details of his past crimes are revealed.
Gradually, these separate threads will eventually come together to form a coherent narrative, but I’m going to be honest here—you’ll need to be patient, because it does take a while. In a style that can be described as sumptuous and detailed—exhaustively so, at times—author Marina Lostetter spends a great deal of attention on world-building as well as explaining the motives of her characters. As much as I appreciate an author who wants to take the time to get everything just right, it was also impossible not to feel a little antsy and bored, wishing she would move it along a little faster and get to the point.
Of course, it didn’t help that the story was so damn grim and bleak. Now, I don’t mind an element of darkness in a book, and in fact, I eat it up when it’s written well. But combined with the slow pacing, the forbidding atmosphere of the setting was less advantageous and became more stifling. This effect needed to be offset by more action and initiative by the characters, and to be fair, we saw some of that here and there, but in the end, I did not think it was nearly enough to overcome the general sensation of ennui. The characters themselves were also fascinating, but I felt like I was reading a detached account of individual people going through the motions, reacting to certain events. Any relationships between them felt strangely dispassionate, preventing me from connecting with them on a deeper level, and because of the way the narrative was structured, there wasn’t as much mystery in the plot as I’d expected.
That said, there are still plenty of reasons to read The Helm of Midnight if you are a fan of fantasy mysteries. There is a good story here, if you don’t mind not getting as many surprises or action and are content with a book that deals mostly with character motives and conflict, which lets the interest build slowly—but surely—as events unfold. The world-building is sublime too, and that’s where Lostetter’s talent really shines. Granted, maybe there could have been more balance between the different aspects of the novel, because there were times where the prose would get carried away with excessive detail into the magic systems, political and historical lore, as well as the people’s connection to the powers of the five gods that make up the religion of this world. However, no one can deny the sheer originality and creativity of the ideas found here.
If the world-building and premise behind The Helm of Midnight appeals to you, I would definitely check it out. Personally, I would have liked a little more mystery and a bit more personality and punch to the characters, but those with a fondness for dark fantasy featuring highly detailed and rich world-building will probably enjoy this a lot more.