Saint Death’s Daughter by C S E Cooney (ARC)

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A copy of this book was very kindly provided me by the publisher. I can’t promise that this didn’t influence my feelings about it, but a book is a book is a book, however I acquire it, and I can promise that all opinions are my own.

 

I am bookstruck and bedazzled, and thoroughly in love with C S E Cooney’s writing now that I’ve made its acquaintance. Saint Death’s Daughter is stunning; an enchanting, engrossing read. It’s a book I was delighted to fall into and loathe to be drawn back out of by our mundane, unmagical reality. I resented every waking minute I wasn’t reading it. Characters, plot, world, magic – it was all perfect.

This would be a fantastic book to read aloud. I don’t know what I was quite expecting[i] when I requested the ARC from Rebellion Publishing, but it wasn’t this. I immediately fell head over heels for Cooney’s playful language and for her magnificent vocabulary[ii], both of which were inviting rather than aloof. While reading, I felt like the author was encouraging me to take as much joy in the rhythms and rhymes of language as she clearly does. To play along. And within the story there is a discussion taking place about the importance of language to our worldview too; the value that languages have in giving us more ways of understanding the world and expressing ourselves. And I am always here for that conversation.

But let’s get a bit more specific: Miscellaneous ‘Lanie’ Stones comes from a long line of assassins, executioners and necromancers. When their parents die, she (aged fifteen) and her sister Amanita ‘Nita’ Stones (approximately eighteen), discover that the Stones’ family estate stands forfeit to one Sari Scratch, with whom their parents were deeply in debt. Their initial struggle to keep their home kicks off a series of ever-widening battles with dead family members[iii] and living, strange and foreign magics, an irresistible enchantress and a skeleton army, royalty and, ultimately, the gods themselves.

Because Lanie is a necromancer. A necromancer with an unfortunate and powerful allergy to malicious intent and violence, which made her childhood with her executioner dad and assassin mom, (not to mention her vicious older sister), necessarily lonely. A necromancer who was instead raised and cared for by the revenant Goody Graves, a reanimated corpse indentured to the Stones family for centuries. Nevertheless, she is a necromancer with an immense capacity for kindness and love, whose death magic is performed with such empathy and affection for the dead that it is beautiful, where you might have expected it to be terrifying or, at the very least, creepy.

I can’t overstate how wonderful a character Lanie is. Her imagination and warmth stitch the whole book together, and the family she gathers to herself are all just as easy to love because she loves them: the monosyllabic Goody, of course; Lanie’s enslaved brother-in-law Mak and precocious niece, Datu; the sublime Canon Lir; the fabulous Havoc Dreadnought (what a name!); the Lady Tanaliín and her Gyrgardu, Duantri. And so many others, less beloved maybe, but no less fascinating.

The world in which Lanie lives and breathes is also intriguing. The setting for the story is Liriat, specifically its capital city, Liriat Proper – a place that tells us a lot about its people with its circles-within-circles layout, repurposed brothels and extravagant Midsummer festival, (I found myself imagining a Gaudí-esque place as exuberantly colourful as it is gothic) – but equally as important are the places we don’t see: the enigmatic Quadiíb where twelve gods are acknowledged, rather than Liriat’s two, and the historically significant Skakmaht, once ruled by wizards in flying castles. (Why yes, I am trying to whet your appetite with non-spoilery, but delicious details … how am I doing so far?)

And the magic! Oh, the magic! Lanie’s death magic is, I’ve already said, unexpectedly beautiful, but the reader also encounters royal blood magic, the Quadic Gyrgardu and gyrladies, god-driven energy surges, fire magic, and magic we don’t yet have names for. The various branches all hang upon the same underlying logic, but they also feel real, convincing in their complexity. And the mysteries that still remain at the end of this first book are tantalising.

 

I could go on and on (my notes go on and on!). I will refrain. Let me leave you with these last thoughts. I feel an inexplicable urge to hug this book to me and carry it in my bag just to know that it’s there. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, of course it won’t, but it charmed and delighted me no end. When I try to pinpoint what meant the most to me, it’s this: Instead of a story about a girl with great power who breaks free, strikes out on her own, achieves the pinnacle in her chosen field, yadda yadda …  Cooney gives us (has given me) something rarer and more lovely. Here is the story of a girl with great power who stays put, who gathers good people into a tightly bound and supportive found family, who loves and is loved, and who finds another way. It made my heart feel good.

And we are left, at the end, with the promise of so much more to come. There are vast swathes of the map still to explore, a tangle of threads not yet tied off, no doubt discoveries still to be made and mysteries waiting to be unpicked. The anticipation is almost too much to bear.

***

[i] I wouldn’t have requested the book at all if it hadn’t been for Bormgan’s excellent post about Cooney’s short story collection Bone Swans which firmly planted the author’s name in my mind as someone to be on the hunt for. Thank you Bart – you’ve no idea how happy I am right now that I read your post!
[ii] Favourites include: decortication, cephalophonic, fewmishings, hetch and ostrobogulous. That last one particularly is very pleasing to say aloud.
[iii] Cooney deploys the art of the footnote to great effect when it comes to relating the colourful lives (and deaths) of various Stones ancestors across the ages. I’ve such a soft spot for a footnote.

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