Series Review: The Nevernight Chronicles - Jay Kristoff
Published: HarperVoyager, 2016-2019
Rating: 4/5 stars
“But to live in the hearts of those we leave behind is to never die. And to burn in the memories of our friends is to never say goodbye.”
You know those books you objectively know are trash, but for some inexplicable reason they’re your trash so you love them regardless….? Yeah, the Nevernight-series is kind of that for me. It’s a series that has so many problems as well as tropes that I subjectively shouldn’t like, yet I still somehow can’t help but love it overall.
The Nevernight Chronicles is a wonderfully consistent series, so the way I felt about each book was almost identical. For that reason, although this is technically a review of Darkdawn, you can also read it as a series-review of the entire Chronicles. I will try to avoid plot-spoilers if at all possible, so if you’re newly introduced to this series, you can still use this review to help you decide if it’s something you want to read.
I’m going back to my oldest of formats: starting with the good, following with the bad, and ending (in the case of this series) with the “meta”, as it ties the two together well.
If you’re looking for an adult high-stakes, high fantasy revenge epic, and aren’t afraid of some explicit content (graphic, violence, sex and a F-bombs in places where I didn’t know they could grammatically be placed…), than this is for you. It walks the line between high fantasy and grim-dark and within that niche it definitely deserves the popularity it has. Some of the aspects that make this series great include:
Worldbuilding can make or break a fantasy novel for me, and I have to say that the world of The Nevernight Chronicles is one of my favourites of all time. Although I would never want to visit it for obvious reasons, this world is one that I can picture vividly in every aspect. Everything fits and is fully developed. From the physical world, to the shadow-magic, from political intrigue to religious beliefs: everything is integrated and thought out to perfection. I cannot stress this enough: this is worldbuilding done right. Too often do authors think of a cool concept (what if there were three suns in the sky?), but forget to think of all the implications that would have on literally every aspect of that worlds inhabitants. The result is basically our reality with a few magical elements added to it. Jay Kristoff takes a different route and built his world from the ground based on these ideas. We are left with a republic filled with shadow magic, where cities are built within the bones of dead gods, and where everything hinges on the overlapping cycle of three suns, that is truly deserving of being the setting to a fantasy epic.
- Internal consistent
That consistency in the worldbuilding is also present in almost all other aspects of this series, from the themes to the writing-style. I will touch back on the latter later on in “the bad”, as I do have some problems with it, yet I have to give it credit for being so recognizable. These aspects combined make for a very distinct signature. If you were to give me a random page to read without context of what book it’s from, I would instantly be able to recognize it as being from The Nevernight Chronicles , just based on the narrative voice.
Speaking of which, this voice includes quite Jay Kristoffs recognisable brand of humor, which I personally appreciate. This will obviously be hit or miss, but the dark, cynical, often crude bits do fit the characters perfectly. Another thing that Kristoff does is (almost) breaking the fourth wall at times, which I personally loved and found the source of the best jokes, but I know this will be a dealbreaker for some people. More on this in “the meta”.
An honourable mention also has to go to the covers as, although they have nothing to do with the quality of the story, they are a true piece of art on my shelves. I might be biased as I was a fan of Kerby Rosanes long before, but the phenomenal work he did on these covers has to be praised.
- Narrative voice
I have already mentioned the distinct and recognisable narrative voice, but unfortunately for me this was also my biggest dislike of the series. In truth I can’t say if it’s Jay Kristoffs style that I dislike, or the voice he created for The Chronicler (the in-universe narrator of the story), as I have yet to read more by Kristoff. The fact remains that these are some of the most jarringly overwritten books I’ve ever read, and this will break the books for you if you have a low tolerance for that sort of thing. The same goes for the footnotes: they serve a purpose, but they’re also quite gimmicky and will be a dealbreaker for some people. At times it feels like the author is trying too hard, and it gives these sections an almost amateurish feel.
Although The Nevernight Chronicles has a more plot-focussed than narrative-focussed story, it still introduces us to a huge cast of interesting characters to keep track of. Unfortunately, all of them are only skindeep, and lack proper development or an arc throughout the series. This was especially noticeable in this final entry, as I was really hoping for more.
Then there is the way the characters are portrayed. I can hardly believe I’m saying this, as I firmly believe that any author can write good characters of any gender, regardless of their own but… Kristoff’s female characters feel very much written by a man, to the point where it really made me uncomfortable. There’s a lot of oversexualising, especially when it comes to the female-female relationship in this book. Although I’m all for F-F relationships being featured in a way that isn’t just “fade to black”, I felt very uncomfortable with the way they were portrayed here. It felt more for the benefit of the male author himself, rather than the characters. More like a mans fantasy-fulfilment rather than a genuine F-F relationship.
All of this could absolutely be my projection of things, but as it played a large part in my enjoyment of the series, I feel I have to mention it.
- Epic or Soap-opera?
Last but not least, this series truly aims to be an epic, and succeeds in large parts. The problem is that the line between an epic-plot and an over-the-top soap-opera with too many twists and drama can be thin. Nevernight stayed on the right side of that line, Godsgrave firmly crossed it, and Darkdawn lands somewhere in the middle. Especially combined with the over-the-top writing, this became too cheesy, too often.
What complicates all the above, is that Jay Kristoff seems to be perfectly self-aware of all of his own faults, and frequently references them in his own story. (“What kind of wanker writes a novel with footnotes?!”) I have mixed feelings about these fourth wall breaks: in Nevernight I loved them, in Godsgrave I got a little tired of them, and (again) Darkdawn landed somewhere in the middle. I liked the self-deprecating jokes, and I even liked the fact that I’m unsure if it’s Jay Kristoff or the in-universe Chronicler that is the wanker here. The question is: is knowing you do it enough to redeem a trilogy worth of annoying writing. For me, the answer is no. It feels a bit like a pre-emptive excuse to dodge criticism, because the author himself felt like he was doing something “wrong”. To be honest, if you know you’re doing something that annoys people, I’d prefer you change it, rather than make self-aware jokes about it. A few years ago, I would have thought differently, but I guess it’s a philosophy I’ve been trying to adopt into more aspects of my life.
Overall, The Nevernight Chronicles are a series I think back on fondly, mostly due to the exquisite worldbuilding and signature style (for better or worse). It’s also a series that has some very prominent flaws, and I can very well understand how those might be dealbreakers for many.
Darkdawn was a fitting end to this saga; consistent and befitting of the series.
In all honesty, I do need a break from Kristoff for now. I may pick up more of his solo work in the future, but if the style turns out to be more him than the Chronicler, I might just find he isn’t the author for me.