Recent Reading: Year of the Reaper by Makiia Lucier

Okay, so … is this the first fantasy novel I’ve read this year? … Maybe? Wait, not quite. I beta read Sage Empress for Sherwood Smith, and before that, Tribute, because it’s a semi-prequel; and more recently I beta read a sequel to Evarran’s Bane for Sylvia Kelso. And before that, I read the Lavender’s Blue series by Cruise and Mayer.

I’m not sure I’ve read a lot else this year. Bits of various nonfiction books. The Cruelest Miles. I honestly can’t remember anything else right now.

So why Year of the Reaper?

a) A good while ago, I posted about the book for some reason, maybe the opening of the novel, I don’t remember.

b) I pulled out the cover because it is totally fantastic.

c) Someone here said they read it and it was really good.

d) So I got a copy, a hardcover because it was half the price of the ebook. (I KNOW, marketing departments make weird decisions!)

e) And there it was, sitting on my coffee table, in hardcover, with this great cover.

So it kept catching my eye, which is the point of putting a great cover on a book, of course, and I kept remember someone saying they loved it (sorry! I don’t remember who!), so I read it. And I really loved it! But let me start by just mentioning something that sort of worked, in that it did its job, but I am really puzzled by this:

Who is the drow? We agree this is a drow, yes? He – or she, this figure strikes me as ambiguous – looks exactly like a drow, except I suppose the ears are less pointed, but despite the rounded ears, wow, is this obviously a drow or what? So, who is this? Answer: This is a great cover which it totally, one hundred percent unrelated to anyone or anything in the book, except the protagonist does carry a mace. That mace does not look at all like this mace, but that seems fair, as the protagonist does not look anything whatsoever like this ebony-skinned figure in the cloak.

Is it possible the people in this novel are ebony-skinned? And the author doesn’t mention this because they are all ebony-skinned and therefore no one finds this worthy of note? Answer: No. For one thing, it is impossible that any author would fail to mention this and just depend on the cover to guide the reader’s vision of the characters. Also, people in this novel go white with shock. Their hair can be brown, not just black. They definitely do not have ebony skin and silver-streaked black hair. All right, maybe the figure on the cover is standing in deep shadow? Answer: no. This figure has skin the same color as the mace, and only a little bit less shiny. This is just obvious from looking at the cover. I don’t buy the shadow theory. On top of that, the protagonist who carries a mace is a big, burly guy. This is very clear from the story. That lightly built drow on the cover cannot be the same guy.

Ordinarily, a severe mismatch between cover and story might really annoy me. As it is, I’m like, whatever, great cover, great story, too bad they have nothing to do with each other, but fine. Actually, what I know happens sometimes is that the publisher has a cover on file and, rather than commissioning a new cover, they say, “Hey, this one has a person with a mace, it’ll work great!” and slap it on the book where the protagonist carries a mace. Or at other times, they tell the cover artist, “Figure with a mace,” and the cover artist does whatever the heck they want with this limited instruction. I wonder if something like that happened here. Since I really love the cover, it works for me anyway. If I’d been the author, I’d have been tempted to say, “Wait one second while I just nip back and make the characters ebony-skinned drow, be done in a jiffy!”

Second quibble: The protagonist’s name is Cassia. I’m fine with ending a masculine name with an -a, as you have no doubt all realized; and I’m also fine with giving a male character a name that looks feminine to the American eye. What I wonder is: did the author know that “cassia” is a real word? It is the name of the spice that is sold as cinnamon in America (and probably other regions). Cassia is the less expensive spice. It is stronger, more “cinnamon-y” and less complex in flavor than true cinnamon, which is sold as “Ceylon cinnamon.”

Yes, the protagonist’s name is actually Cassiapeus, and he thinks of himself as Cas, but the name Cassia does nudge at my sensibilities harder than say, Maia in The Goblin Emperor, because Maia doesn’t mean anything to me and Cassia does. Also, Cassiopia is another real name, and that is so similar to Cassiapeus that it gets in the way as well.

But let’s set quibbles regarding the packaging aside and go on to the many things that made me love the story! These things include the setting and backstory, the protagonist and other characters, and the plot.

The setting and backstory:

All right, so we have just suffered through the Black Death. It’s been awful. There is a brief prologue in which everyone is dying and then a flashback in which a lot of people die, and wow, this is a grim backdrop to the story. People are coping, but a lot of towns lost half their population. It really was the Black Death, no fooling, though no one calls it that.

This works really well, and part of the reason it works so well is that the author, Makiia Lucier, somehow manages to avoid an overly gritty or grim feel even though there has been a lot of awful stuff happening. It’s an impressive feat. This is a book that anyone should read if they want to see how to include terrible things in the backstory without making the story itself extremely grim. Part of this involves not shining too merciless a spotlight on the various horrors. Part of it is not dwelling on the various horrors. Everything that happened, happened, and everyone thinks of it and is aware of it, but this isn’t the same as the author dwelling on all this.

The Characters:

Besides that, the story is filled with lots of characters who are decent people, mostly trying to be nice to each other and find a way to do the right things even when the situation becomes pretty complicated. There are villains, yes, but you don’t have to keep holding yourself tense against the expectation that everyone is going to stab everyone else in the back. People are really happy to see the protagonist turn up because they thought he was dead, he’s really happy to see them because he was afraid they might be dead. People aren’t saccharine, but they are mostly real people who are really family and friends. They feel emotionally real and they are people you like spending time with.

The grimness of the recent backstory gets even grimmer for Cas. He was taken prisoner, betrayed, imprisoned, tortured, got the plague, recovered, and here he is, returning home after a brutal three years. He is not untouched or unaffected by everything that has happened. But the author manages to completely avoid a feeling of angst even while Cas struggles to deal with and overcome all that awfulness. And how does Lucier achieve this? That is exactly what a writer might want to pay attention to. This would be a great book to read along with something filled to the brim with angst, just to see how differently the emotions are handled. Cas does not dwell. He is not focused on himself. He is also kinder than he realizes himself, not just in moments of heroism (he does have those moments, though!) but in moments when, for example, he forces someone greedy to sponsor a new orphanage. The chance came up and he’s the kind of person who would think of doing that and then who would do it. At the same time, he is definitely dealing with the emotional fallout of everything that happened and everything that is happening now.

So, this is a story where people feel things deeply, but the tone is not angsty at all. I loved Cas, and his brother, and Lena, and the king, and the queen, and honestly this is a great character-driven story even though the plot is also central.

The Plot:

All right, so, the actual plot. For a while I had a sinking feeling that I was going to be writing comments that reluctantly emphasized Extreme Character Stupidity. No! I am happy to say that I did NOT figure out who shot that initial arrow, I did NOT figure out who was behind the strange plot, this was a plot twist that took me completely by surprise even though it instantly made sense. I would be curious to know how many readers figure it out before the big reveal.

Incidentally, I can look into my handy crystal ball and see a conversation that might have gone a lot like this during the revision of this novel:

Beta reader: “I love it, but, Makiia, I don’t really believe she would do some of the things she does. Yes, what happened was traumatic, I get that, but was it really THAT traumatic? Because … I’m just having a hard time with this, that, and the other.”

Makiia: “Hmm, well, let me make what happened MUCH MORE traumatic. There!”

Because … wow. The thing that happened was certainly awful enough to provide justification for this very important plot element. If no conversation like that took place between the author and a beta reader, then I bet an internal conversation like that took place within the author’s mind. “I need to provide motivation that actually makes sense even though I’m designing a world where most people are pretty nice to each other and trying to do the right thing, even though this character did not start out evil. What would be so awful that it would work here?” I may imagine this was possibly a beta reader’s input because it’s similar to one comment I got from a beta reader, something along the lines of, “Can this thing Rihasi did be even better justified, so that the reader can see she honestly had no choice but to do it?” Answer: “Hmm, well, let me provide a REALLY SOLID and much more personal justification. There!”

So that feeds into something I’ve maintained for a long time: that practically any plot element can be justified if the author is determined to get that element into the story, but that it can be very helpful to be told, “This may not quite work yet; can you think again and come up with a more solid justification?” Because you can, generally, but sometimes you need to be told you’re not quite there yet.

So Year of the Reaper is great to just read and enjoy, but I do think it also offers a look at certain things that a prospective author might want to consider: A setting with seriously grim elements, but the story does not itself become too gritty or too overwhelmingly grim; worldbuilding that feels almost more historical than fantasy; characters who have suffered terrible things, and who are recovering emotionally in believable ways, but who are not consumed by angst; murder-mystery style plotting with nice red herrings and a clever twist; and a justification for that twist that lifts it from unbelievable to pretty believable. Plus, the falling action shows how to tie up loose ends so that the reader is not anxious about certain things; leave a hook for a possible sequel; and resolve the central relationship plotline in a satisfying way; all briskly, but without a truncated feeling.

Some of the last lines of the author’s note at the end say, “Year of the Reaper is a hopeful tale, a story of friendship and family and the resilience of the human spirit.” I agree. The story this most reminds me of is The Goblin Emperor, though it’s quite different. I want to pick up something else by this author. If any of you have read more of her work, I would welcome comments.

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9 thoughts on “Recent Reading: Year of the Reaper by Makiia Lucier”

  1. Okay, okay, I’m putting this on my list at the library (but looking forward to RIHASI first!)

    Cas sounds like he’s starting from a similar place to Caz in THE CURSE OF CHALION—even a similar name. Wonder if that’s an intentional homage?

  2. I picked this up on Lydia’s recommendation when you posted about YA novels and I LOVED it!!

  3. I’m glad you liked it! I guess the cover is supposed to be of the statue of Cas–except of course that a key point about the statue is that is *does not look like that*. But somehow the crumbling statue seems like a nice symbol for the hard shell that Cas has built up that he has to let go of , and for façades crumbling and letting out the secrets beneath… so I guess I still like it because even though it’s not a picture of what happens in the novel, it feels thematically resonant, and it is very striking as an image.

  4. I assumed that picture was a statue made of some dark stone. Is that not correct, then? It’s awfully monochrome for a real person in armor.

    It’s a rare fantasy book in which the author’s own name sounds more fantastic than her protagonist’s, but I have to say “Makiia Lucier” and “Makiia” alone both work better than Cassia.

  5. I am dying to steal “Makiia” and “Lucier” as names. If variants along those lines appear soonish, you will know where they came from.

    There IS a statue in the story. I did not see the cover image that way at all, but now I will go reread the description of the statue!

    Thank you for your feedback on this novel, Lydia! I’m glad I picked it up!

  6. Thanks for the review! I had seen this and assumed it was grimdark. Off to see if the library has it…

  7. Immediately after I read this, I went to my library app and borrowed her other fantasy series. I believe it was the one you mentioned in your next post. I really liked that series as well. I have not yet not read her book that appears to focus on the Spanish influenza outbreak of the early 20th century. She mentions in one of her afterwards that she is fascinated by disease, and her other series builds a lot around leprosy. As in this book, it is not grim, it just is. And her treatment of mapmaking is fascinating. I highly recommend.

  8. Ditto to both other commenters here, I thought the figure on the cover was a statue with a shiny black finish – very shiny on the metal armor epaulets, a more matte polish on the face. If it was depicting a living person or drow, I’d expect a bit more variation in the coloring and texturing of skin, hair, armor, weapon and clothing, even if they’re a black-skinned, black-haired person dressing in black.
    Still the choice to depict the statue as solid black instead of bronze or stone did give off a rather dark vibe to me, not exactly inviting.

  9. FINE. I guess it sort of does look like a statue. BUT, that never crossed my mind till you all started saying so, which means it’s not nearly as successful a cover as it might be. I really thought it was supposed to be an image of the actual protagonist! Even now, it’s hard for me to see it as a statue. You know what would have made it much, much more obviously a statue? Break part of it off OR twine plants around it OR put it up on a plinth OR all three.

    Also, it’s a weird choice. The statue in the book is destroyed. I definitely wouldn’t have picked it.

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