This second book in Jay Kristoff’s Nevernight Chronicle was quite damaging to the integrity of my poor, frazzled nerves, not to mention my blood pressure: where Nevernight was a rollercoaster ride, Godsgrave ended up being an emotional tsunami, one that flipped me without mercy between excitement and terror, without a single moment of respite. And I enjoyed every second of it.
Mia Corvere’s path of vengeance against those who destroyed her family takes a new direction here: her harrowing year as an acolyte of the Red Church turned her into an accomplished assassin, and she proved instrumental in foiling the Empire’s attempt to destroy the Church, thereby gaining her place as a Blade, a killer for hire, the first step into her vendetta against cardinal Duomo and consul Scaeva, the main culprits in the obliteration of the Corvere family. But an unexpected and unforeseeable revelation forces Mia to turn rogue and seek a different track, one that will entail a daring, difficult plan and many brutal, bloody sacrifices.
The first part of the novel follows two converging time tracks: the present, where Mia is now committed to her plan, and the recent past, where we see how and why she got there. It’s a fascinating interweaving of timelines and it shows to perfection how this new, even harder and more determined Mia came into being, once she realizes that the Empire is based on far more convoluted and insidious lies than she imagined, and that she should trust nothing and no one.
The opportunity to get close enough to Duomo and Scaeva so that she can kill them comes through the Venatus Magni, ferocious gladiatorial games that take place in the days of the convergence of the three suns: the champion of the games is crowned personally by the two co-rulers of the Empire, allowing the winner to get in close proximity to them, without guards or protection. There is a little catch to the scenario, however: gladiatii, or the gladiators who fight in the arena, are all slaves, sold and bought from all over the Empire for that very same purpose, and trained in schools supported by wealthy citizens who compete ferociously for the best fighters and the most skilled teams.
So Mia arranges to be sold into slavery (and I will leave to you to discover the hazardous, bloody way she manages that) and be bought by the main gladiatorial school of the Empire, certain that she will rise in the ranks and be chosen to fight in the Magni. Things don’t go completely according to plan, however, and our young assassin finds herself acquired by a rival school, one ruled by the estranged daughter of Mia’s prospective patron, which poses a number of obstacles in her carefully constructed plot, not the least of which being that Domina Leona, her new mistress, occupies what used to be the summer resort of the Corvere, Crow’s Nest, a place whose memories still cut deep into Mia’s soul.
Much as the journey that takes Mia to Crow’s Nest and the arena is a fascinating one, the true heart of the story resides in the training she undergoes – a harsh, brutal, bloody affair against which the trials in the Red Church look like children’s play – and in the changes in her attitude and psychological makeup: Mia’s character is mostly founded on her single-minded drive to accomplish the goal she set herself, the willingness to push aside any other consideration so she can attain that goal, but here she seems to lose some of that hardness, showing a few chinks in the armor she wrought around her soul from the moment she was all alone in the world. In the past, no matter the grimness of the situation she found herself in, Mia could still find strength in the awareness of who she was, or used to be – the daughter of an influential family. Now she is a slave, the chattel of an owner who can dispose of her life as she wants, requiring that she fight and bleed – and die, if necessary – for the prestige of her Domina and for the enjoyment of the crowds. And for the first time in her life she is able to see how the “other half” lives, and how injustice in the Empire is not limited to political maneuvering and assassinations in the upper echelons of society.
And where in the Red Church the other acolytes were rivals to outshine in accomplishments to gain the favor of the teachers, here among the gladiatii Mia learns the power of loyalty, the bond that comes through shared hardships and dangers: no matter how much she repeats to herself that they are not her friends, that they are all means to an end, she starts to see them as persons, and to care about them – definitely a weakness, from a certain point of view, but also a shift in perspective from the definition of what Mia could do, which was the focus of Book 1, to the definition of who Mia is, which is the focus of Godsgrave, the part of her journey where she learns she has indeed a conscience, or starts to unearth the one she suppressed long ago.
Of course, part of the discoveries we make in this novel, one that is packed with twists and turns and unpredictable paradigm shifts, is to find out if this new side of Mia’s character is only a momentary lapse or a new direction: one of the things I learned from this book and its predecessor is that I can never, ever take anything for granted, and that Jay Kristoff simply loves to pull the rug from under his readers’ feet.
The characters are of course a big part of the appeal of this book – not only Mia, but old and new faces whose acquaintance we either renew, as is the case of Mercurio or Ashlinn, or we make for the first time, like Mia’s fellow gladiators: the latter especially offer a wide range of personalities, from the boisterous Sidonius (one of my favorites), to the twins Bryn and Byern; from the servant girl Maggot to the house’s champion Furian, whose tendency to holier-than-thou whining did nothing to endear him to me, but still offered some interesting contrast with the other slaves. However, the story is just as important as the people who move through it, and in this respect Godsgrave is a very compulsive read, even more than Nevernight was, and if Mia’s prowess with blades and her seeming invulnerability require some suspension of disbelief, the author presents them in such a way that it’s not an effort at all. Moreover, Kristoff’s choice to move from the confines of the assassins’ school in the Red Church to the completely different venue of gladiatorial games is a winning one, since it shifts what was a somewhat limited focus to a wider slice of Itreyan society.
In my review of Nevernight I compared this world to a mix between the Roman Empire and the Venice Republic, while here the former is emphasized not only through the spotlight it throws on gladiatorial games, but because names, customs and situations look as if they were taken straight from the history of ancient Rome. And just like their historical inspiration, the Venatus Magni are a mixture of bloody games and the application of summary justice, wrapped in a packaging of spectator sports that sheds a pitiless light on mob mentality and the ruthlessness of crowds, whose base desires are channeled and tamed through witnessing the carnage of the arena. Panem et circenses, indeed…
If I were to find any fault in this second installment of the Nevernight Chronicle it’s because it ended too soon and with a cruel cliffhanger that felt terribly unfair, because – ‘byss and blood! – I was having such fun with it…