Review: The Helm of Midnight by Marina J. Loestetter

In a daring and deadly heist, thieves have made away with an artifact of terrible power–the death mask of Louis Charbon. Made by a master craftsman, it is imbued with the spirit of a monster from history, a serial murderer who terrorized the city with a series of gruesome murders.

Now Charbon is loose once more, killing from beyond the grave. But these murders are different from before, not simply random but the work of a deliberate mind probing for answers to a sinister question.

It is up to Krona Hirvath and her fellow Regulators to enter the mind of madness to stop this insatiable killer while facing the terrible truths left in his wake.

Rating: 2.5/5

Review

I wasn’t really sure what to expect from The Helm of Midnight, but it sounded fascinating… and a little creepy. After reading it, I can definitely say it’s imaginative; the world-building is highly ambitious and the plot is very clearly linked to the consequences of the magic system(s) that have been developed. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to offset the lack of attention to character development and relationships for me, but readers who prioritise world-building are likely to love this one.

Broadly, The Helm of Midnight follows three perspectives – in the present, we have Krona Hirvath, the Regulator (sort of like a bureaucrat/police officer) responsible for discovering who stole Charbon’s mask and is now copying his distinctive mass-murdering style. In the past, we follow Charbon himself, as we learn what drove him to become a serial killer, as well as the story of a suspect in the mystery. There are also multiple magic systems, linked to different gods, which allows for an expansive world. My curiousity about the various gods and how the different magic systems worked was what kept me going – for example, one form of magic is related to time, and every citizen has some of their ‘time’ siphoned from as infants, which they can buy back at the end of their lives, and I thought this was a fascinating but macabre idea that I wanted to know more about.

Unfortunately, the world-building was about the only thing I enjoyed in this book. Loestetter has a very clinical narration style, and The Helm of Midnight spends very little time in the heads of its main characters, exploring their innermost thoughts (we do get a little of this with Charbon, and it’s chiling stuff). The writing essentially provides a blow-by-blow account of what characters get up to, and as a result relationships emerge because the plot requires them to, rather allowing the reader to see them organically grow and change over time. Not every book has to be a character-driven book, either, but the problem is that The Helm of Midnight‘s final twists rely on character bonds (such as the relationship between Krona and her sister De Lia) that just weren’t strong enough in the text for me to truly feel like I’d been stabbed in the gut. While I thought Loestter did a good job of differentiating her POVs clearly, the decision to spend so much time learning about what characters – including Charbon – got up to in the past took out a lot of the suspense for me, since the discoveries Krona made had already been so clearly telegraphed. While murder mysteries involving serial killers require having some indication about the killer early on – since they clearly have a distinctive pattern – knowing so much about the person responsible made this feel less like a mystery.

I won’t be reading on in the series, but those who like darker fantasy with ambitious world-building may want to check this one out.

Note: I received an ARC from Tor Books. The Helm of Midnight will be released on 13 April.

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