Book Review: The Helm of Midnight by Marina Lostetter

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The Helm of Midnight is a dark, suspenseful, fantasy thriller. Ambitious world building, a multi-faceted magic system, and an exploration of the connected themes of morality, trauma, and family do the heavy lifting in this jack the ripper style mystery investigation.

Book cover of The Helm of Midnight by Marina Lostetter

Book Blurb

A legendary serial killer stalks the streets of a fantastical city in The Helm of Midnight, the stunning first novel in a new trilogy from acclaimed author Marina Lostetter.

In a daring and deadly heist, thieves have made away with an artifact of terrible power–the death mask of Louis Charbon. Made by a master craftsman, it is imbued with the spirit of a monster from history, a serial murderer who terrorized the city with a series of gruesome murders.

Now Charbon is loose once more, killing from beyond the grave. But these murders are different from before, not simply random but the work of a deliberate mind probing for answers to a sinister question.

It is up to Krona Hirvath and her fellow Regulators to enter the mind of madness to stop this insatiable killer while facing the terrible truths left in his wake.”

Goodreads Blurb

Highlights

  • Ambitious World Building
  • Multi-faceted Magic System
  • Themes: Morality, Trauma, Family
  • Slow Pacing
  • Disconnect With Characters

The Review

Marina Lostetter’s first book length fantasy offering is one with a lot to offer the reader. Part heist story, part murder-mystery, it attempts a great many things, succeeding in some ways and falling short in others. It is dark, and not just because it revolves around a solving the murder-mystery where the killer dissects the victims and puts them on display as if they were a blooming flower. I mean yeah that’s pretty dark, but it goes even deeper into past traumas and the impacts those traumas have on the characters and larger story.

If you like world building this book should really appeal to you. It’s this kind of a crazy mix of a late 19th century/early 20th century fantasy setting with humanity existing along a single peninsula outside of which is a world filled with monsters and horrors that continually want to break through the barriers separating one from the other. And every now and then they do break through causing terror and mayhem. It’s a world where everything exists in fives; five gods, five city states, five climates, five seasons, five days of the week. Time is a currency in this world which I’ll say more about below. It is evident Lostetter put a lot of thought and effort into creating this world and it’s many intricacies. For the most part I really enjoyed the world building. It added a rich layer of depth to other aspects of the story and always acted as a reminder that there was something more, something very dangerous that was threatening everything from without. The only thing that really bugged me about it was that bit about all of humanity existing within one peninsula of the larger world. It just seemed a bit difficult to accept given how quickly people multiply and spread out; how quickly we tend to come into conflict with others who get to close to us and our stuff. Sure the horrors of the outside world might keep them hemmed in, but I don’t know…it just kept sticking with me in my mind as I read and I couldn’t shake it.

Related to the worldbuilding is a multi-faceted magic system that was one of my favorite aspects of the book. Magic exists in fives as well. I won’t go into all the details, but at a high level magic is infused within objects by artificers to do different things. You can enchant a necklace or a bracelet, a knife, or a pen. You do so based upon the materials it is made of. Different materials can have different magical properties drawn out of them. Gemstones can enhance the powers and emotional strength of the magic. It’s really pretty cool and I felt like only the surface of the possibilities was scratched in this first story. I noted above that time is a currency. Time is extracted from every person at a young age and then stored away. It is set into currency chips with are used to purchase any good or service. While it takes away from a person’s life span it can be cashed in late in life to get some time back. Then there are the masks. The masks are far and away my favorite aspect of magic in The Helm of Midnight. Masks, more specifically death masks, are created when a person dies. They become imbued with a particular aspect of that person’s character that can be utilized by another person later. If you were good at spotting lies or things out of place, your trait is captured in the mask and its wearer clan later use it to their benefit. The downside is a part of the original person is locked within the mask and may fight with you for control when you wear it. The masks are really, really cool and at the heart of the plot.

My other favorite aspect of The Helm of Midnight was its themes of morality, trauma, and family. All three are tied together and found in each of the three character threads followed throughout the book. Good versus evil and whether they can exist at the same time within a person, and whether the good one does can ever redeem the bad is a question always at the fore in the narrative. Past traumas and the way they impact the characters in the present, and the actions of the past are a constant driving force of the story. The importance of family and they way family bonds impact one’s decisions are also integral to the story whether we are talking about the protagonists or the villains.

Where the book started to lose me a little was with the pacing. It’s only 464 pages, so not that long for a fantasy novel, but for some reason I just felt like I was never getting very far when I’d sit down to read. The first three quarters of the book just felt slow. Part of this was due do the format of three POV characters, one in the present, and two at points in the past. As the book progressed the three narratives slowly worked their way together in the present. This format is fine, it’s just in this instance the pacing felt very slow. I think the pacing was also hampered by info dumps explaining the world building. Normally I hate info dumps but Lostetter did a pretty good job in how she presented them, it’s just they slowed the pacing down within the action of each chapter.

The other negative for me was that I never really felt for the characters. This is kind of a surprise given how I liked the themes present in the book. You’d think that how they are tied together would cause me to feel for the protagonists. But for some reason that I I can’t explain I just didn’t. I’ve had a hart time trying to figure out why and I really don’t have a good answer.

Final Thoughts

I think many readers will love this book. There’s a lot to recommend about it and if ANY of the things I listed above appeal to you I’d say pick it up and give it a shot, I think you’ll be pleased. Even with the few issues I had with the story I still enjoyed it and I plan to read book two in the series when it comes out because there are still some questions left unresolved that I’d like some answers to, and there seems to be a LOT more to explore within the framework of the world building and the gods that Lostetter only gives us a peek at in book one. I have a feeling some epic things are in store for the rest of the series.

*I received an eARC of this book courtesy of the publisher and NetGalley.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Author: Marina Lostetter
Series: The Five Penalties #1
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication Date: April 13, 2021
Format: eARC
Pages: 464

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