Today it is my absolute pleasure to be reviewing The Many Shades of Midnight by C. M. Debell as part of the Escapists Books blog tour, because this is a book that blew me so far out of the water that I’m still in orbit. Life has conspired against me while trying to get this post up, and the review was fighting me – because I LOVE this book so much that it’s impossible to do it justice. Definitely a favourite read of 2023, and I’ve already picked up the first of the author’s other books, because with The Many Shades of Midnight Debell has become a must read/buy author for me.
Disclaimer – I received a copy in exchange for an honest review, all thoughts are my own.
Isyr. Stronger, brighter, more beautiful than other metals. Once the most desirable thing in Ellasia, now it is priceless, the pure Isyrium needed to produce it mined to exhaustion. What’s left is controlled by the powerful mining syndicates, and such is the demand for their Isyrium that even kings do their bidding. Yet just as the beauty of Isyr hides a deadly secret, so too do the syndicates.
A terrifying enemy is spreading a plague across the land, a sickness that kills or transforms everything it touches. Unable to contain the outbreaks, the King of Lankara begs the aid of the disgraced former Duke of Agrathon, Alyas-Raine Sera, a man who has spent years fighting syndicate expansion and whose resentment over his exile makes him an unpredictable, dangerous ally in the power struggle between the rulers of Ellasia and the mining companies.
Attached to the envoy to recall the duke, the apprentice surgeon Brivar finds his skills and loyalty tested as his service to his new patron uncovers secrets about Isyr and the plague that link it to the mining of Isyrium – and threaten the life of the man it is his duty to protect.
In their own separate ways, Alyas and Brivar must take on the might of the syndicates and confront the greed, murder, betrayal and impossible choices of a crisis that has been decades in the making – and the price of their failure could be everyone and everything.
There is nothing for it.
I need to start this review by gushing, because otherwise no coherent thoughts are going to get through. I was absolutely consumed by this book, days later I’m still thinking about it and going through to look for quotes (I was too focused the first read through) I kept getting swept back into the story. This book is as rare and beautiful as the Isyr itself, and just as devastating in its own way. I freaking loved every second I spent with this book, and my only regret is that I waited so long to read it after having it recommended to me just before it was released, and I can already say with confidence that this is one of my top books for 2023 and one that I am going to come back to again and again.
The Many Shades of Midnight is a masterclass in what a standalone fantasy book should be, giving us a world that feels vast beyond the boundaries of the world that we get to witness, while the story and the characters draw us into a beautifully crafted microcosm that both echoes the wider world that the author paints around us and drops tantalising hints about, but also standing very firmly on it’s home as the heart of the story. Do I want to wander off and visit the places that we hear about in rumours and tales, reports and whispers? Hell yes. Do I want to spend more time with the Lathai and learn more about their culture? Double hell yes. But, did I feel that I needed to? Or that the story needed me too? No. Instead, I felt as though I was caught up in a world where if I could step off the boundaries of the pages, then I would be swept off into the rest of that world and that feeling, that sense that I knew enough to set off and find those places was exactly what I needed to fall in love with the world. If Debell ever chose to play some more in this world, I would be there in a heartbeat. As it is my mind is still caught up in it and likely will be for some time to come.
And while I said this is what a standalone fantasy book should be, really, I feel that is too narrow a definition. It is undoubtedly a fantasy book, and yet it draws in threads from dystopia and apocalyptic stories, as well as elements of environmentalism, as well as guiding us beautifully through a socio-political commentary that can resonate across worlds.
All of which is beautifully, perfectly balanced around a compelling, intimate story of the characters that are the living, breathing soul of this book. Again, this is why The Many Shades of Midnight is so brilliant as a standalone, because in that sprawling, hinted at world, Debell brings us in close to a select few that are at the very centre of events. As much as this book touches on those wider issues,
We have three main POV characters – Brivar, Esar and Mari, with some others later on in the book. I find the choice of these three characters interesting for several reasons, firstly, is the fact that they bring such different views to the story. Brivar is naïve and sheltered, but in many ways also more open to finding answers, and in some ways it felt like the fact that he had been in the Temple and separate from the events in the past that had spawned much of the tension of the present gave him a much clearer view of things. I really like that it was paired with the fact that while he was still an apprentice, he was still skilled – I was particularly struck with his opening chapter where he was able to see the signs of pain in a stranger because of those skills, it made for a strong character who really came into his own throughout the story and in a way it felt like he was the reader’s witness to everything that happened.
Esar was a powerful POV for so many reasons, firstly he was the one who had witness and been part of the events that had seen Alyas exiled in the first place, as well as the circumstances that resulted in the state his brother was in when they met Brivar. He was the one who lived through everything, and had everything to fight for – his brother, his lover…their future. He was the one who connected everyone from his brother, to royalty, to the company and even through to Brivar, and yet in so many ways he was the unsung hero and his personal struggles, with the past, with trying to protect and help his brother and to protect those he cared for were compelling.
Mari added a completely different dimension to the story. It felt a little like she was the man behind the curtain, making the wizard of oz possible, only here she was pulling the curtain back for us to see what lay beneath. She gave us a different perspective on past events, and what had lead to the present, and while her role in so much of it – whether through inaction or choice – was deplorable, Debell gave us a character who was real. One who had been ambitious, one who was able to see where action needed to be taken even if her only way of seeing that done was to whisper and charm and point others in that direction. And by the end, with the choice that she made she had earned by respect despite how much fault lay at her feet.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the character work in this book, is that our main character, is not one of our POV characters. Nor is he a cut and dry protagonist or antagonist, instead I think he falls somewhere between the two as a catalyst, sometimes more one than the other – but then again that depends on what side of the divide you are stood at the time. And that is where I think Debell has pulled a masterstroke of subterfuge with how she presented Alyas as a character, as aside from three chapters, he was never our POV instead all our perceptions of him and his behaviour and motivations came from others.
And this is another reason I find out three POV characters such interesting choices, because on the one hand they were all characters who were or came to be closely entwined with Alyas in one way another – a brother, a complicated mix of childhood friend, almost sister and almost more and a healer who saved his life; and therefore had chance to see him in different ways and at different times, their views all coloured by different experiences and connections. But, it almost felt a little like past (Mari), present (Brivar) and future (Esar – although he as I said was the connection throughout it all).
Alyas with barely any time spent within his head, was the most compelling of all the characters in this book, and Debell created a complicated, multi-layered character all through the perceptions of others and his own actions, and only when it had to be him. When his voice begged to break through and be heard, the catalyst giving voice to change, did we have his POV.
It also meant, that the ending – which blew my mind, even with the puzzle pieces that had slipped into place – was one of the most beautiful executed, devasting twisting conclusion that I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. And it’s all because of how Debell had shaped these characters, giving them voice and life, and using them in turn to make Alyas the heart of the book.
The brilliant character work is not limited to these characters either. Everyone in this world was nuanced, each with their own connections to the main characters or to the events, each with a voice and motivations of their own. Raffa was a character that surprised me though, I had been all geared up to loathe him, and believe me there was plenty to dislike about him and for so many reasons, and yet Debell did not let that be the sum of his character, and the moments with Mari were such beautifully raw, human moments that even as I wanted to slap him, I enjoyed having on the page. Even Ovisia had my respect for how she played the game. I loved those of the company that we really got to know, and one of the Alyas’ Aunt was a formidable force – and possibly my only, tiny grumble is that I would have liked to have seen more of her.
“I lied,” he replied, his voice hard. “A concept you are familiar with.”
Not only was the characterisation excellent throughout, but it was also a brilliant choice of where to focus on, because at its heart – beneath the fantastic elements, political wrangling and social commentary – this was a story about the power of lies, the double-edged slice of truth, and how both action and inaction could be equal in their culpability. There was no black and white, only every shade of grey imaginable. And as a reader we cared, we sought to learn the truth and break through the lies, because of the characters. We wanted the truth of what had happened to Alyas’ father, and why he was exiled because we were invested in him, because Debell through the eyes of others had cast him as a man who wasn’t a hero, but who would stand up and fight, even for those who had betrayed him. We wanted to learn where the corruption came from, because it almost took a character, we were invested in from us, but because we got to see it’s effects on the wider world and how that all came back on these characters. We wanted to see what other truths were hidden behind that curtain that Mari drew back for us, and the answers that Brivar was so driven to find.
And all of that was down to the characters.
“If you succeed, you will ruin him. And your mother. Are you sure that is what you want? You have a comfortable life here.”
“I don’t want a comfortable life if that means others are forced to live uncomfortable ones.”
The Many Shades of Midnight also acknowledges and confronts that those truths, and forcing people to face their responsibility does not necessarily mean that you are the right side, or that such change or challenges can be done without cost. But, at the same time, it asks – is that cost worth it? Is what you could lose, what the world could lose, or what could happen – worth paying for change? Is the future worth it? And at the same time, it offers as many answers as we are confronted with today, when faced with challenges that could very well have come straight from the pages of this book – yes, no and maybe – depending on what you have to lose, what matters, and who is willing and able to step forward and press that red button. Debell explores all of this, and doesn’t shy away from the ugly realities of what some of those outcomes would be, and there is pain and loss, stark and resonant, but there is also hope. Hope that one person can make a difference, that people can and will fight for the future, that a change – no matter how devastating, can alter the outcome.
The ending of this book was powerful and devastating, and yet achingly hopeful. To reach the end and see how Debell had pulled all the threads together, all the little details that had been there in plain sight but alone had been like scraps of a map that hinted at a destination we couldn’t appreciate until we’d made the journey, was breath-taking.
The Many Shades of Midnight has left me with the best and worst book hangover I’ve had for a while, and even writing this review has me itching to reread it again already, even though I don’t think my heart has recovered from the ending. I have not even come close to doing this book justice in this review, and all I can say is that this is absolutely a book that you should be adding to your TBR list. A story that resonates across time and place, with compelling characters, and ultimately a tale that offers a siren song of hope.
Fantasy fan since forever, coffee-obsessed, cake-loving Londoner, wife, mother, journalist, editor, designer, and cowrie collector.
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If you’ve read it, or read it in the future, please feel free to shout at me about this fantastic book.