I received this novel from Orbit Books through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.
It saddens me to acknowledge the fact that I could not manage to finish reading Soulkeeper: this story started in a very promising way and maybe it created too many expectations from that beginning, leading me on the path to disappointment. This is NOT a bad book in any way, I want to make this clear up front, only it’s not a book that agrees with me. Sometimes it happens…
Devin Eveson is a Soulkeeper, a mix between a warrior and a priest called to solve dire emergencies all over the Cradle, the realm where the story is set, and to dispatch the souls of the deceased toward the heavens. As we meet him, he has just reached a village where a terrible plague with an inexorable fatality rate is decimating the people. The plague is only one of the terrifying portents happening all over the Cradle: a flood of unstoppable black water brings decay to the buildings and crops it flows over, and turns the people caught in it into something resembling ferocious zombies; creatures of the wild, like wolves, attack unwary travelers and show the ability to speak, expressing malicious intent; mountains move threatening anything on their path, and mythical creatures, that so far were relegated to the realm of fantasy, make themselves known.
Even in the city of Londheim, Devin’s home base, things are looking bleak, indeed: the looming mountain at its door is the first sign of the changing times, but other clues show that is only the beginning. The roof gargoyles become night predators seeking human flesh, and gigantic owls fall from the skies on careless citizens, but the most terrible fiend comes in the guise of Janus, a twisted creature who names himself “artist”, one who carves his works not in stone or wood, but using human flesh that it transforms and twists with cruel delight.
Thankfully, there is a sort of balance to all these dire omens: some people find themselves able to wield magic, which for some gifted individuals turns into the ability to heal the most cruel injuries or the most lethal illnesses: it’s a sign that the three Goddesses who watch over the cradle still battle in favor of humanity as the old evil that was never truly vanquished tries to reassert its hold on the world.
All these elements should have been enough to keep me glued to the book and read on in a compulsive manner, but unfortunately the pacing of the story proved to be somewhat uneven, alternating moments of high dramatic suspense with others where lightness rules, but the transitions did not feel quite smooth and I often found myself wondering where the story truly wanted to go or what its overall tone was meant to be. While it’s true that it’s quite impossible to maintain a constant sense of impending dread and that some “breathing room” is necessary in the flow of a story, I confess I found it quite impossible to accept, for example, the juxtaposition of Janus’ brutality, whose depiction often had me reeling in horror, with the airy demeanor of Tesmarie, an onyx fairy who strongly reminded me of Disney’s Tinkerbell, or the wordless, Baby-Groot-cuteness of Puffy, a flame creature who Devin meets on his travels.
Other elements are presented but never fully fleshed: a prime example of this is offered by the Soulless, people who are born – as the word indicates – without a soul, and therefore incapable of independent thought or will. These unfortunates are either employed as cheap labor in factories or, much worse, used as playthings by the more depraved elements of society. One of the manifestations of the changing times is the return of the soul to many – if not all – of the soulless, with what could have been an interesting character exploration, since a Soulless is one of the people we encounter in the course of the story and she finds herself suddenly able to exercise her own will for the first time in her life. Once again, though, this character’s journey of discovery feels far too superficial to be truly interesting, or poignant – or maybe once again I set my expectations too high to be happy with what I read.
Once I started skipping through the novel in search of the true “meat” of this story, which proved quite elusive to me, I realized that my interest kept diminishing and I could not hope to find any true connection with either the book or the characters, and even though I was already at seventy percent through I decided to give up, not without a hint of regret for what felt like an unfulfilled promise.