I really hate not being able to gush unreservedly about something I’ve read. Especially something I was saving for a solid day of reading. I picked up Beasts Made of Night in the library before Christmas because of its gorgeous cover, and kept hold of it because of its great blurb. Then I saved it for a day off when I could curl up and get lost in it. And when that day came … I was disappointed. Sometimes a world is so enchanting, so beautifully rendered, that it almost doesn’t matter if the characters or the plot inside that world are flawed. Sometimes an idea is just so kick-ass-awesome that it doesn’t matter the story it’s a part of is lacking. Beasts Made of Night has a lot missing, but it has some really good ideas and some fantastic bits of world-building too. I keep thinking about all the work that’s gone into the writing of this book, and then the packaging and the marketing of it, and it almost breaks my heart to have to say I didn’t like it.
I didn’t loathe it either. There’s some great stuff in here. The whole concept of sin being something that can be removed and carried by another, the sin-beasts and the sin-eaters, was just awesome. I couldn’t get enough of it and Onyebuchi writes the sin-eating scenes so viscerally that I could almost taste the sins myself. I loved the idea that different types of sin take different animal forms – snakes for lies and small birds for thieving, for example – that become tattooed on the sin-eaters skin. And that in the city of Kos these tattoos are seen as marks of shame, even though the sin-eaters are carrying other people’s sins, and that they are children who rarely grow to adulthood because a person can only carry so much sin. It all had the ring of authenticity that is often missing from a lot of young adult fantasy.
The city of Kos felt alive with its richer and poorer districts, its markets, its smells and sounds, and the merchants, palace guards, brokers, street children, graffiti artists and mages that people its streets. I liked the little details that were worked in, like books being cylindrical and read held up to one eye like a telescope, and the different districts having their own variations of a dish like spicy chicken wings. The main character, Taj, felt very much a part of this world. He’s scrappy and cocky, always fiddling with his hair to keep it poofed the way he likes it and drooling in his sleep, turning his head at every pretty girl he sees, but also watching out for kids younger than himself. He knows his way around the streets of Kos with his eyes closed and he sends the little money he earns back to his parents. I liked him from the get-go.
Then it all got a little confused. The plot took a long time to really kick in and so it felt rushed at the end. Taj was left with very little to do for what felt like long periods of time. The sense of him as a character declined as the book moved forward. When he got to the palace he seemed to blur and by the time the strange romance with Princess Karima popped up I felt like Taj was gone. The romance felt forced and unbelievable because it had barely any time or space to develop. I saw the endgame coming. The evil mage didn’t have time to bulk up in my mind so he never really felt like a threat. All the stuff in the forest was confusing. The passage of time became unclear.
I would have liked to know so much more too. About the gearhead girls and people with auto-mail limbs, (seriously, don’t just drop that in there and then say nothing else about it!!). About the Scribes and why they tag the walls of the city with colourful depictions of sin-beasts. About the kingdom of Odo beyond the walls of Kos, particularly the nomads from the west with their very different beliefs about sin-eaters. I wanted to know more fully about Arzu and Aliya and Bo so that I could picture them and understand why they all acted in the ways that they did – especially Bo.
The book ends with a cliff-hanger. I imagine that a lot of what I want to know will be in the next book(s). But I am left with such a fuzzy and confused sense of the ending that I don’t plan to continue reading. I no longer feel able to care about Taj or the fate of Kos. I can’t tell you how sad this makes me feel (I keep wondering if teenaged-me would have felt the same way) … I really, really wanted to love this book.
(I read this for the “Read a Diverse Fantasy” Book Bingo category).