Book Review: The Monsters We Feed – Thomas Howard Riley

Hello!

Today I am delighted to be reviewing an ARC of The Monsters We Feed by Thomas Howard Riley, which will be out in the wild on the 6th December. This is a bit of a ramble – perhaps moreso than usual – because (a) I absolutely freaking love this book and (b) it is very much a book that I don’t want to spoil. What this means is that towards the end of December/Start of January once more people have had the pleasure of reading it, I will likely return for a deep dive post because there is so much more I want to talk about!!

For now though, please do check out the book and author – and if it catches your fancy then please pre-order!

Disclaimer – I received a copy in exchange for an honest review, and I also had the honour of being a beta reader for this one, however all thoughts are my own.

Book Summary:

The morning before he found the dead body, Jathan Algevin thought he had his whole life just the way he wanted it.  

He knows his city inside and out, and doesn’t bother carrying a sword, trusting his wits and his fists well enough to get by, hustling extra coin by ratting out loathsome magi to the law for execution. 

He and his sister, Lyra, have watched out for each other ever since the day they were orphaned by a bloodthirsty rogue sorcerer, and now they finally have steady work, good friends, and the freedom to spend every night laughing at the bottom of a bottle. 

But nothing lasts forever.

When he stumbles across a brutal murder, Jathan discovers a strange crystal lens that opens his eyes to an invisible world of magick and terror lurking just beneath the surface of his own, making him question everything he thought he knew. 

But will gazing into this new arcane realm lead Jathan to save lives, or help destroy them?

With dangerous people hunting for the lens, monstrous lies unraveling his life, and a hidden underworld calling to him, it is only a matter of time before his whole world comes crashing down. 

Will he find the answers he is looking for, or will he only find a monster needing to be fed?


Rated-R Dark Fantasy Noir in a city of hope, lust, and brutality, where swords are banned, and magick is just as likely to get you killed as it is to save your life.

There are always things about ourselves that we don’t want to see.
There are always things we can’t stop doing no matter how hard we try.
We all lie. We all have secrets.
We are all feeding monsters.

The Review:

Holy Hell, I love this book! We Break Immortals which was my first introduction to Riley’s work was fantastic and I am excited to see where the rest of that series goes, but I love The Monsters We Feed even more. It is a book of layers, and twists and turns, and mystery, all with the most subtle of hands guiding the story telling; and I will say it is a story that demands that you pay attention to the small details, and it is so worth doing! I had so much fun guessing, second guessing and being proved right and wrong on so many occasions, and that is all down to how beautifully the threads have been woven together. I also have to say that this not-a-novella, could never have been just a novella – it needed to be th’e chonk it turned into to tell that the story that unfolds, and that it by no means feels like a chonk because it all flows so well.

EVERYONE’S LIFE CHANGES THE first time they find a dead body.

I have to talk about the first line for this book for several reasons. Firstly, just the sheer impact of it in all its simplicity. It immediately had my mind racing with questions – where was the body? Who was the body? How had they died? It immediately sets the idea that this is going to be a mystery of some sort; and hooks you into the story because if you’re like me you need the answers to those questions. It is also a perfect example of one of the aspects that makes this book shine so bright, and that is the subtle foreshadowing and hints, that are so integral to every aspect of The Monsters We Feed. This line with it’s eleven words, manages to encompass so much, from what is going to be one of the driving forces for the book, but also hinting at just how far the ripples of these events will extend and who will be impacted…and that the death toll might not be limited to that single body.

Any mystery requires layers and false leads, and Riley has truly taken that to another level in The Monsters We Break. This entire book is like a puzzle box, but without the frustration because even when I thought I’d puzzled something out only to be proved wrong, the payoff was worth it. Riley has such skill and subtlety with weaving the different elements, that it’s like a riptide that catches hold and pulls you in. It certainly has you at it’s mercy, because I found myself unable to stop reading because I had to find out what was happening – and I’m happy to report that was just as true on the second and third read throughs, because there are so many little hints and elements, that it feels like there is always something else to discover.

The worldbuilding is also spectacular. If you’ve read, We Break Immortals, then there are some easter eggs and references to the wider world that will be recognizable, and I love that feeling of scale and breadth that acts as a backdrop to the events for this book. However, the reason why the worldbuilding shines so brightly here, is that Riley has created a whole, self-contained world within the city of Kolchin and breathed life into it, and here again we see those layers coming in to play, both in terms of societal layers, but also all the little elements that play into one another from individuals, to alliances between different groups, to trade above and below the table. It creates the feeling that you could duck into an alley at the side of the story, and lose yourself in the city and find dozens and dozens of unseen stories unfolding, and it has to be said that the city felt far more than just a setting in this book, and was almost a character in its own right as so much of the story and how it unfolded was intimately tied to the ebb and flow of the city.

We also get full immersion right from the beginning, with the use of terms that are specific to the setting, and what I like is that we are trusted to be able to understand them within the context that we encounter them. Which really, is how it feels if you go to a city without a guidebook, and it worked really well here, particularly as were following the POV of a local, and I found that it really did pull me right into the city from the beginning. It also plays into the fact that continuing with the layers of this book, there is very much a feeling of a city within a city, within a city. On the first level we have the city as it seems to us as outsiders, the surface layer with hints of what lies underneath; then there is the dichotomy between the different regions of the city, with Tenement Lane (my favourite setting in the whole book) really capturing that feeling of being a city within a city beyond all the others.

 ‘Each block was a tangle, festooned with ropes and cords and wires floating between buildings, many strung through with drying clothes, some made into pully systems to lift possessions to the high floors, and many others that were simply abandoned, nothing more than silent shackles holding the tenements in bondage.’

Then there is the city that our main POV sees, the one that he thinks he knows and shares with us, and then the city that he discovers, the one that really exists. Which again feeds that idea of the city as a character, as it’s one we get to know more about as the story progresses, and it feels like forging a bond with a character. It also uses one of my favourite styles of worldbuilding, it that we learn more about the city and the world as a whole, as it unfolds for the character, which always feels so much more organic – and works especially well in a character-centric story like this.

Then there is the magic system, and the complex world of the Glasseyes and Render tracing – and for this there is an appendix at the back of the book. I was already a fan of this magic (and essentially counter-magic) system from Riley’s previous work, but again if you aren’t familiar with We Break Immortals, it is established fully within The Monsters We Feed. It’s a fascinating system, and I loved how it was explored here – from the very personal story of Jathan and Lyra, to how the Magistrates would look for magick users, to the mention of stories and wonder, and also how it plays into the action.

‘Invisible objects slammed into the magistrates, puncturing their bodies with wet, pulpy slaps. Bones cracked, blood spilled, and one by one they all fell.’

Again, we have that dichotomy and the layers, from the idea of people using magick to lift pebbles for entertainment, to using it to cause massive harm to others, to more subtle applications; and honestly, I feel that even across this book and We Break Immortals we have only just scratched the surface of the potential of this magick and I am excited to see what else is possible within it.

As much as the city is a character in and of itself, it does not detract from the characters. Jathan – our main characters, has to be one of the most infuriating, compelling characters I’ve had the pleasure of reading. Gods, there were so many times when I wanted to slap him upside the head, and moments when frustration turned to actual anger, and yet at the same time I absolutely loved him as a character, and I don’t think this story would have been anywhere near as powerful if it had been told through someone else’s eyes.  What I really like about Jathan, is that often when we talk about character growth, it is a journey where they move forward gaining something – whether experience, empathy, skills or a combination of all of those; and Jathan does have growth, but with him, it is more about unravelling and shedding the world, the city and the lies that he has built up around himself. Again LAYERS! Only in this case, I’d have to say he’s more like an onion, and he’s peeling away the skin to get to the useful bit beneath. It’s a fascinating way of dealing with his growth; and honestly, Riley’s characterisation work as a whole in this book is fantastic – but I have to say Jathan is the crowning achievement, and it certainly wasn’t a hero’s tale.

In fact I would be tempted to call Jathan a pro-antagonist rather than a protagonist, because this was very much a story where although there are numerous villainous characters – Kolchin is a not a paradise, and some places are darker than others – he is his own worst enemy, fitting when you consider the title (and when you learn what it means). Jathan is out doorway to everything, but he is also the roadblock, the dead end that you thought would be a short-cut; and it makes for such compelling reading. This is a character who starts off in a position where he would argue he was fully developed – he knew who he was, what his place in the world was, and how the city was supposed to work – and what we witness is not so much a journey or a heroic quest, but rather a very intimate, and personal unravelling that pulls the world in with it. That would be fascinating in and of itself, but Riley weaves into this so many lies and unfolding truths and memories, as well as rich, well-realised relationships new and old with other characters, that it becomes utterly consuming.

‘JATHAN WONDERED IF EVERYONE shared the same stagger when everything in their life had been upended. He wondered if the steps he took now were the same kind of steps taken by all those who had been so sure they had escaped trouble, only to have it fall into their lap tenfold.’

Which in turn is countered by Lyra, Jathan’s sister, who is an equally compelling character in her own right – and I have to say that re-reading this story has such a different impact after what we learn about her by the end. On the surface level she is like the light to his shadow, as well as an anchor to stop him falling apart completely, because he has her to come back to. But that would be to do her a disservice – and Riley has made her far more than that. Jathan is in the limelight, but Lyra is really the one to watch – because in so many ways she is a mirror that shows the truth, about herself, about the plot and about Jathan, as well as being the link between past and present, and truth and lie.

“I was born first. If anything, they saddled me with you.” She laughed, every perfect tooth visible in a perfect smile.

The relationship between Jathan and Lyra was brilliantly captured, and for anyone who has sibling then it is both a joy and an agony to behold, because it is all there from the sibling rivalry to the banter, to the ability to hurt each other more than anyone else. That familial bond is also such an important theme and aspect of the story, and while theirs is the main example, we get to see it play out across several story threads with other characters.

 Riley has a talent for bringing to life, messy, believable and incredibly human characters – and I think that is particularly evident not just in Jathan and Lyra but also their wider group of friends. This group was that wonderful heady mix of friends, work colleagues, and love interests (from friends with benefits to sweethearts and everything in between), and in some ways they felt they were not so much reflections of the Jathan and Lyra, but through highlights on their aspects from the flirtiness which was particularly evident with Christian and Sethleen, to the weight of history and childhood that was there with Nessifer (which made her feel very much like an anchor for these more flighty characters), to feeling a little out of place like Branderin.

Honestly, there wasn’t a single character that doesn’t stick in the mind for some reason. Trabius was a favourite, if only because he was so quirky – but he also plays a vital role in tying in the past. While I really loved Jansi and the relationship that she had with Jathan, and it was interesting to see her role alongside that Lyra and Nessifer, and there different ways of relating and trying to reveal the truth to Jathan; and the fact that she didn’t have that history with him, but did have the connection with the city and especially Tenement Lane that he wanted and needed made for an interesting dynamic. Then there were the villainous characters, some of whom were more than they seemed and others who were less, and Riley kept us on our toes with all of them, but I have to say that Seber Geddakur is the one that caught me the most. He’s vile, there is no watering that down, but I think the reason he’s so compelling and unsettling, is that to some extent he just was – his was an almost simple shade of black, his reason for doing what he could being because he could – and it felt as though he was a monster fed and brought to life by the others.

The Monsters We Feed is hard to review in that I don’t want to reveal anything that would spoil the main events, because this book is one you have to experience. It’s a mystery where you have to follow the threads yourself, and half the fun is thinking you’ve put all the clues together yourself – and finding out if you’re wrong or right. What I can say is that it is beautifully crafted and written. If you want a book that makes you pay attention, looking for all the subtle clues, the hints that might be nothing or something, and one that demands you think, and feel, and question, then this is the one for you. Riley skill as a writer is evident on so many levels in this book, from the sheer layering that makes up the entire story, to the characterisation, to the action which is bloody and brutal and incredibly visceral, to the emotion and the feeling that everything has stakes…and the follow through (be prepared this book has a bite).

It also has an incredibly satisfying ending. Now – originally there were two endings, and I loved both (and I hope the author will share the other one somewhere at some point), but the one we have ended up with is one of those that gives that feeling of coming full circle – of settling down full and content, but with the potential for MORE. And the real power of the ending, is that potential, because it remains so true to the characters involved and is so incredibly human, as it demonstrates that flaws – that monsters – are not so easily banished.

‘The monster needed to be fed.’

The Monsters We Feed is the kind of book that will leave you with a hangover of the best kind. I’ve been so impatient waiting to read this version, because I couldn’t get the story, the setting or Jathan out of my head even after all this time. This book holds so much within its pages, from a murder mystery to gang conflicts, to an intimate, personal unravelling of a character, to an exploration of the relationship of lies and truths and the power and corruption of memories, to friendship and family and love. It also has an undercurrent of almost philosophical discussion of lies and truth, and the human inclination to feed the monsters we shouldn’t. And all of this is contained within a compelling story, in a well-realised world that I want to see more of, and with a cast of characters that can be scarily relatable.  Riley has created something truly spectacular with this book, and if you weren’t already watching his writing – then you should be!

Purchase Links:

Amazon UK | Amazon US

**

If you’ve read it, or read it in the future, then please feel free to shout at me about this fantastic book!

Rowena

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