What I liked:
1) the worldbuilding was intriguing and believable. their country (whose name I forgot, if it was in fact mentioned at all) has one religion and a caste system. the country next to them has a different religion, and its unclear what its social order is.
one of the castes is the warrior caste, which is pretty important. warriors get special arm tattoos, usually depicting the animal symbol of their clan. in theory, warriors are all honorable and stuff. in reality, they’re people. and people can be manipulative and judgy, as one of the characters, Gavril, learns firsthand in his background. his father was very important within the warrior ranks, but then he did some stuff and was sentenced to die in the Forest of the Dead (I’ll get back to this). Gavril had nothing to do with it, but people still treat him on behalf of his father. if they hated his father, they hate him. if they supported his father, then they very openly stand by him.
that’s one example of believable world-building, another is how the Seeker and Keeper are supposed to be treated vs how they actually are.
the Seeker and Keeper rank very highly within the caste system. supposedly, they out-caste just about everyone, with the exception of the emperor and perhaps his family. but in reality, its more complicated than that; things usually are, and I appreciate the realism.
what are the Seeker and Keeper, you ask? well, they are basically twin shamans who top the religious totem pole, at least in the mortal world. not so much on the spirits’ end of things. and when I say ‘twin,’ I mean twin. literally. every once in a rare while, twins are born. identical twins. if they pass a test, wherein they are bonded to special giant animals—a giant Wildcat and a giant Hound—then they are, in fact, the Seeker and Keeper. if not then they die. this is a medieval-type world, remember. anyway, the Seeker’s job is to, essentially, purify the spirits of the damned and release them to the afterlife. the Keeper’s job is to protect the Seeker, and the world at large, from the evil spirits.
this isn’t as impossible as it sounds, because all the spirits of the damned are kept in one place: the Forest of the Dead. it’s basically a forest that looks alive, but has no life in it, and is surrounded by a wall made of cooled lava. criminals of the highest order are sentenced to live out one year in the Forest of the Dead. typically, there are no survivors, and even if one unlucky soul does manage to survive, they probably won’t be freed. why? because if you spend to long in the Forest, you contract swamp sickness, which is bad bad bad. so if someone does survive, and they get swamp sickness, they are put to death.
now, I mentioned the Seeker’s job was to release the spirits of the damned. those spirits are the spirits of the criminals who died in the Forest. the Seeker must go through the lava wall’s one opening and into the forest, with her Hound (the Keeper has the Wildcat) and a contingent of guards. there the Hound tracks down the dead bodies, and the guards take them out of the forest, where the releasing rights are done. they rarely find all the bodies, partly because they can only stay two days without risking swamp sickness.
2) I also liked the monsters. the monster were awesome. the main ones are the shadow stalkers, with a little side trip for giant scorpions, death worm things, and thunder hawks. none of which are supposed to exist. but they do. just like, the Forest isn’t supposed to have anything living in it, but it does. creepy, weirdly evolved things like rats—which is what, I assume, the few criminals who survived ate (assuming they didn’t eat each other. considering there’s at least one criminal, Ronan, who we’re supposed to root for, I think its fair to say they weren’t all cannibals).
3) the emperor was cool. I don’t know how many books go with the incompetent, usually fluff-brained emperor/ess type thing, but this one didn’t and it was a breath of fresh air. of course, he only appears near the end, so I suppose there’s still time for him to prove me wrong, as this is a series.
What I didn’t like:
1) the main characters were underwhelming. Moria and Ashyn. which I kept reading as Moira and Ashlyn by accident. but that wasn’t the problem, not really. the problem was that in the first chapter, the prologue (not told from Moria or Ashyn’s point of view), Moria seems like a really interesting badass—kind of like Ygritte from A Song of Ice and Fire, if you’ve read it. but then she’s just kind of…average. she’s supposedly a superbly trained women warrior, and yet she can never seem to fend for herself. and her Wildcat is supposed to be huge—like lioness-sized—yet it seems practically useless. so does Ashyn’s Hound.
and speaking of uselessness, supposedly Ashyn and Moria can communicate with spirits, yet its more like once-or-twice-I’ll-mention-spirits-muttering-something. and Moria supposedly has the ability to repel evil, but this ability is never shown in action, even against monsters like shadow stalkers and thunder hawks.
so, in essence, neither character nor their bond-beasts are useful in combat. and they encounter quite a bit of combat.
as for their personalities, I found them interesting. I thought they made some questionable choices, but I believed they were choices the characters would have made, and I think the characters recognized their mistakes and tried to move past them. the problem for me is, they didn’t really move past them. the characters didn’t develop over the course of the story.
Gavril, I thought, was especially frustrating. he waffles between decent and unlikable for most of the book, only to make a bizarre turn at the end. I’m not even sure what direction he turned in, but he turned and I didn’t quite believe it. possibly because the turn happened when Moria confronted him about his father, and the ensuing argument was confusing.
2) shadow stalkers and all these other monsters suddenly appear, and not just in the Forest and around it. they appeared in the Waste that lies between the Forest and the town outside of it, and the nearest city. I wondered why monsters weren’t appearing elsewhere, beyond the Wastes. it seemed just so other character could scoff at the main character’s story about the ‘mythical’ monsters.
3) the character’s ethnicity. I know; its a fantasy world, they’re not going to match any real-world ethnicity. come on, now. but still. there are Northerners, who had pale skin, blonde hair, blue eyes, and a stereotype of being slow and stupid. then there are various other skin tones.
but the “perfect” look tone is described as skin the color of golden sand, straight black hair, high cheekbones, slanted eyes. sounds east asian, to me. combined with the mention of a “kitsune” as one clan’s animal symbol, and the fact they have an ’emperor’ and not a ‘king,’ it makes me think all the characters have east asian features, with various skin, hair, and eye colors. after all, this is just one country. but then I’m not sure. for all I know, this is the world’s standard of beauty.
overall, I liked it. it was engaging, and—if I hadn’t been interrupted by the night and having to sleep so I could get up early—I could have read it all in one sitting. I’ll be on the lookout for the sequel.