Nether Light by Shaun Paul Stevens

Medium: ebook (656 pages in print)

Overview (No Spoilers):

Sarah’s Thoughts: 

Nether Light contains both detailed worldbuilding and an intriguing magic system, which will keep the reader’s interest piqued while simultaneously laying a foundation for future books in the series. The magic in this realm has a fascinating statistical component that is only briefly expanded upon, leaving the how and why mostly unexplained fodder for subsequent novels. Well I should clarify, the general system for most users is clarified, however the unique abilities harnessed by our main character are still veiled in mystery, with the max potential still undefined. 

I kept finding myself drawing similarities between The Golden Compass and Nether Light, within the context of daemons and simulacra, respectively. Both fantastical entities share similarities of being linked at a soul level to their human host, while appearing to have some limitations regarding distance from that individual. Interestingly, the simulacra typically disappear as their human reaches their teenageish years, whereas in The Golden Compass, the daemons lose their ability to shapeshift when adolescence is reached. Meaning both magical systems place emphasis on the same time point of someone’s life. The differences lie in the overall construct, as the simulacra resemble their person and the daemons embody an animal. 

In Nether Light, we follow Guyen and his family who are immigrating to a new country with the hope of a better life. Alas, after being met with tragedy along the way, he and his family must make their way with limited resources, biased laws, and extreme prejudice in this new country that had previously held such promise. Unfortunately, Guyen’s luck refuses to change course despite his best attempts. It’s only when it appears he’s reached his lowest point does the tide turn, though his new situation comes with a whole new set of social rules, prejudices, and expectations. So, the premise is interesting and the reader is kept on their toes due to the various predicaments that Guyen finds himself in, along with spending significant amounts of time in various parts of this literary realm. These are all elements I enjoy in fantasy literature; however, where Nether Light seemed to drag revolved around the fact that there was so much building without any proportionate reveals. Yes, Stevens includes some complex battle scenes and lots of drama, but there was so much mystery and unknown that keeps the reader in the dark. Guyen, himself, was a pretty hard character to root for as he is generally hard to like. Other characters seemed to fill stock roles such as the asshole military dude who is the unrepentant bully (though he surprisingly becomes one of my favorite characters by the end), or the out-of-his-league, smart love interest. The most intriguing character was Mist, who is more on an enigma by the end of Nether Light than when she is first introduced. This lack of connection with the characters made the perilous situations less stressful as intended due to the reader not feeling fully invested in the safe outcome of the main protagonists. 

Overall, Nether Light is chock-full of potential with a delightful magical system, abundant worldbuilding, and plot twists galore, but the characters didn’t contain the same level of depth and attachment to keep the reader actively fretting as to their wellbeing. Sarah’s Rating: 7.5

Jennie’s Thoughts: 

Long ago, Faze energy was released into the world. Alas, interacting with it directly tends to have serious, negative side effects. Also distressing is how widespread this dark magic is across the Feyrlands. Luckily, a remedy has been derived that is administered to children as a way to prevent the Affliction. Despite the formula posing its own health risks, this procedure is not voluntary as the alternative is sickness or madness. Although rare, one’s immunity to the effects of Faze has been known to wear off over time. Unfortunately, this seems to be happening with increasing frequency lately, which raises the following question: is there something wrong with the current concoction or is there something else going on?…

Written by Shaun Paul Stevens, Nether Light was released in May 2020. Told from a third-person perspective, the main character, Guyen, could be described as unpleasant at the start of the story. This makes sense, though, given that he’s thrust into roles without any prior training in a foreign country that’s long been at war with his homeland. Throughout this narrative, the reader witnesses many acts of bigotry directed at (and coming from) Guyen as a result of this ongoing conflict. Stevens deftly uses these instances to build tension around clashes that loom as a result of Guyen’s mounting frustration (and seemingly bad luck). Guyen does exhibit growth as bonds are formed with those whom he’d deemed an enemy only a short while before.

Interestingly, characters that I didn’t expect to play significant roles in the tale ended up being active throughout, whereas those that I’d thought would be around for the long haul had limited print time. While the more prominent characters are interesting and distinct, their backstories and motivations tend to be shrouded in mystery and less fleshed out. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing since it added to their personas, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t want to know more – especially about Mist! There were also times when I couldn’t quite place minor characters who came back around without a reminder – I wouldn’t be surprised if I was actually betrayed by my own memory for rushing to see what happened next.

I was so captivated by Stevens’ writing style that I had no problem following Guyen down rabbit holes that did more to expand the world and establish relationships than push the plot forward. Honestly, the worldbuilding is one of my favorite parts of this book. It’s clear that a lot of thought has gone into the details, both big and small. I also enjoyed how Stevens utilizes brief interludes between various chapters to offer historical context on how the current state of affairs came to be; however, it felt like the information tended to appear before I needed it at that point in the story, leaving me more puzzled than prepared for the events of the impending chapter.

Fortunately, as magic starts to play a bigger role, the reader learns about this unique magical system along with Guyen. One thing is for sure, he has a long way to go before he’ll fully understand what his abilities and their limits are. Now, Nether Light is broken up into three parts: the first portion introduces Guyen and his place in the world, the second section shares more about the political systems found in the Feyrlands and how magic fits into them, and the last part delves deep into conspiracies and attempted power grabs. In my opinion, there are a few too many shocking developments toward the end of the book, making things harder to follow. But all in all, this slow-burn fantasy set in an eighteenth-century world is worth a read! Jennie’s Rating: 7.5

Average Critiquing Chemist and her Bookish Boffin’s Rating: 7.5

Additional Insight (Spoilers Abound): 

  • How was the magician planning on getting into his trunk again after losing the ‘lucky’ silver coin to Guyen? If the side it lands on was controlled by a Faze device, how did Guyen outsmart the magician to win it?
  • Who was wielding the crossbow in the first chapter? Zial? Devere?
  • As a Krellan, why is Zial in Sendal? Is Nazhedra Sendali?
  • How did Olvar and Livia meet? Why was Livia in Krell if she’s Sendali? Is it somehow related to when Devere was exiled in Krell? How did they meet Devere?
  • How does Dalrik know Livia? And is Dalrik actually on Guyen’s side? Why did Dasuza never give Guyen any money for his information? What was the perk for Guyen?
  • When did Vadil and Guyen develop a rapport enough that he could ask favors of the famous Flags player such as borrowing his manservant’s suit?
  • What is the purpose of The Book of Talents? For as much time as Guyen spent reading it I struggle to find a purpose for it in the overall plot.
  • Who is S.G., the one who’s been leaving notes in The Book of Talents? And why didn’t Guyen rely on that book more to learn about his abilities (and heritage)?
  • “…the only injury I got was my damn clamour.” Would Guyen have been able to detect Faze if he hadn’t been in the fire? Where was Yemelyan when Kiani died?
  • Guyen has had a persistent buzz in his ears since he was a child, but why hadn’t he really interacted with Faze before moving to Sendal? Because Sendal has geodes and quartz deposits?
  • What are the extent of Guyen’s powers?
  • Olvar mentions that Zial had recommended a special potion of Red Oil for Guyen to take when he was younger. Why did he and Yemelyan stop taking it? Why didn’t Livia think to give it to Yemelyan when he fell ill? Was Yemelyan Purebound before he got sick? Was he ever able to see/sense/hear Faze? Does Guyen have more of the Hayern bloodline than Yemelyan?
  • Since Hayern is Guyen’s ancestor and the concoction for Binding is based on Hayern’s blood, why does the concoction affect his bloodline (killing Guyen’s aunts and uncles)? Can a Purebound be Bound? Is that what Guyen’s father was? Or could he manipulate Faze as well?
  • If “the minor domes’ alignment is said to reflect the state of Binding within the Feyrlands,” did Guyen fix the alignment when he rotated the Dome Major in Karonac? Did it have any effect on those who are already Unbound? What was it that caused the Dome Major to rotate initially?
  • Now that the Dome Major has been recentered, will the strange weather patterns go away? If that wasn’t the cause of extra Faze showing up, what was causing the red lightning and black rain and other weird weather phenomena? What happened six months ago to cause it?
  • Could Jal really see Toulesh? If so, why couldn’t Guyen see hers? Why did some people lose their simulacra and others not as they get older? Why hasn’t Guyen lost his yet? How has Mistress Gilphrani been able to keep her simulacrum for so long? Because of her Talent as a sniffer?
  • The scenes with Guyen and Jal were so cringy, especially the one where they were having sex. I wanted to shake Guyen and tell him to stop drinking so much. Every time he drank in excess something bad seemed to happen.
  • Who is Mist’s mysterious and well-placed Uncle? Why was Mist being so weird with Guyen after his confession? It also seemed off to me that Guyen would know that if he was seeing Faze it was a unique experience, and have the presence of mind to know to not tell anyone he was seeing it. 
  • Why was Mist so flirty with Tarobert? To make Guyen jealous? Or was she in the middle of something to do with espionage? Or did she actually want to hang out with him?
  • What had Mist wanted to tell Guyen about at the Reverie that she wasn’t able to with her leaving the party early and then Guyen getting arrested?
  • Why didn’t Guyen suggest Gigi as a witness when she was the one who’d told him to go to the roof garden to meet Mist around 10?
  • What revenge will Jal exact? Why wasn’t she present at either Kasimar or Karonac? Are any of the other Primes involved in Jal’s plot to rebind the world (*cough cough* Berese, who did a poor job leading the troops at Kasimar despite being ‘highly regarded’ *cough cough*)?
  • Did Vale and Yannick survive the ‘skirmish’ and explosion at Kasimar? And is Mist actually okay?
  • Is Sark’s daughter actually dead? I wouldn’t be surprised if she was actually still alive.
  • Was it actually Harbrath who was breaking into Guyen’s room?
  • Why was Nyra’s ‘reaction’ to the Faze from the Layer different from Rialto’s?
  • What happened to Nyra’s wife, Gigi after his death? I had a hard time reconciling him as a ‘bad’ guy, however it explains why Nyra betrayed Guyen to Rialto. Honestly, I didn’t see Rialto being a bad guy either, but this is likely due to a flawed personal bias that, of course, no scientist could be evil. 
  • I’d assumed the cover portrayed Guyen and Yemelyan, but I think it’s actually Rossi! Rossi really came around by the end. I was surprised I actually found myself enjoying his exchanges with Guyen by the end.
  • How will they fix the binding issues now? With Guyen’s blood? Can you undo the damage done to those ‘poisoned’ by the new concoction?

Vocabulary Builder:

Apéritif: an alcoholic drink taken before a meal as an appetizer

Apoplectic: of a kind to cause or apparently cause stroke

Arrear: the state of being behind in the discharge of obligations – usually used in plural

Auditoria: a room, hall, or building used for public gatherings

Avarice: excessive or insatiable desire for wealth or gain

Bairn: child

Barrack: to shout at derisively or sarcastically

Bellicose: favoring or inclined to start quarrels or wars

Boffins: a scientific expert

Brogue: a dialect or regional pronunciation

Certitude: the state of being or feeling certain

Chilblain: an inflammatory swelling or sore caused by exposure (as of the feet or hands) to cold

Chit: a short letter or note

Churlish: marked by a lack of civility or graciousness; surly

Cravat:  a band or scarf worn around the neck

Dogsbody: to do hard, menial, or monotonous work

Epaulet: an ornamental fringed shoulder pad formerly worn as part of a military uniform

Grouse: complain, grumble

Hoi Polloi: the general populace

Ignominy: deep personal humiliation and disgrace

Jape: to say or do something jokingly or mockingly

Lapis: a semiprecious stone that is usually rich azure blue and is essentially a complex silicate often with spangles of pyrites

Malaise: an indefinite feeling of debility or lack of health often indicative of or accompanying the onset of an illness

Mortice:  hole, groove, or slot into or through which some other part of an arrangement of parts fits or passes

Natty: trimly neat and tidy; smart

Pecuniary: of or relating to money

Pin Money: money given by a man to his wife for her own use

Pram: a small lightweight nearly flat-bottomed boat with a broad transom and usually squared-off bow

Prised: to press, force, or move with a lever

Quaffing: to drink (a usually alcoholic beverage) heartily or copiously

Sozzled: drunk, intoxicated

Tranche: a division or portion of a pool or whole

Wodge: a bulky mass or chunk; lump, wad

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