*Declaration of Interest – I am personal friends with the author and proofread his drafts before publication (no money involved). I received a free ARC of this book for my honest review, and my opinions here are unbiased and my own.*
Blurb: Teo Roqué is journeying through Europe with Emily Hayes-Brennan, the woman he loves, when ancient hostilities give way to a war between powerful, clandestine organisations. A war which puts the young couple’s lives in danger, as well as all those they care about.
And as a new threat emerges, fanning the conflict’s flames, Teo and Emily must work together to end the war before it leads to a disaster much, much worse than they’d imagined.
This book is the third in Jonathan McKinney’s Schildmaid saga, and whilst technically it can stand alone as an individual story arc I strongly suggest you would be missing out on some of the incredible intensity of this installment if you don’t read the other two books first (and the novellas too…why not? You may as well), so go ahead and do that first if you haven’t already. I can wait.
Ok, good, now that’s sorted, on to the review.
I am spent. Completely emotionally blown. McKinney’s writing has been strengthening as this series progresses and in this novel his control of the reader’s emotional response is superb as is the poise with which he swoops you between the highs and lows: action to romance; sadness to sniggering; expectation to shock.
The usual cast of Schildmaid heroes are here, excepting Rakesha and Alice who are mentioned but are busy having their own adventure (in a soon-to-be-released novella), plus a chorus of Baininlaiocht petitioners, Commission stooges, Virilicae magi and appearances from some familiar faces such as Joshua Baum, and a ‘hot’ new threat. This installment follows Teo’s story arc, and it is striking how much his character has developed since his first introduction as ‘just’ a tech guy.
One of the things I particularly like about this series is that whilst at one level it is a straightforward comic-inspired action story with superhero goodies and supervillain baddies, but there are more complex layers too. There are ‘goodies’ who deceive, and ‘baddies’ with consciences. The characterisations of all of the main characters are particularly strong: consistent to the personalities presented, but always developing and changing. Taking my favourite character, Isaac, as an example; you can clearly still see in him the teen-gamer roots he inherited from his creator, Camden, but now tempered and rounded out by his own grasp of morality and humanity.
Another strength is that to balance the fast-paced action there is always some thoughtful examination of the moral issues behind the plot, such as whether means justifies ends, what constitutes heroism, and how far our lives are predestined or down to personal choices. The dilemmas presented to and by the characters are never easily resolvable into black and white, right and wrong answers. Just as in real-life, the decisions are just not that easy, and the reader is left pondering long afterwards whether it is reasonable to sacrifice the few to save the many, or turn a blind eye to evil to prevent greater evil.
It is evident that the author is a fan of the Joss Whedon canon of kickass heroines and snarky banter, and he follows the same pattern in blending old legends and fantastical magical powers with the modern world in the form of Skype, references to pop culture (look out for the Snakes on a Plane reference for example).
Personal favourite moment: Isaac (my favourite character) praising Barenaked Ladies (my favourite band!) The fangirling went into overdrive for that one!
Reader caveat: These books are aimed at adults, so the language pulls no punches. There is plenty of hardcore swearing action, so if that’s not your thing then this isn’t for you. For me, as it is in context and in character, I don’t have a problem with it.
Overall this is the best Schildmaids book yet in my opinion: utterly gripping and compelling. The ending set my brain whizzing and I can’t wait to get my hands on the next in the series (which I am reliably informed will follow the personal arc of Lola, the Lioness!) And as previously noted, there will be another shorter story arc in the meantime to tide us over and fill us in on what the B-team were up to in the absence of the major players.
‘I can rip them up pretty good. But I don’t want the petitioners to see them. No one should see fucking zombies if they don’t have to.’
‘Yeah, I could have lived without it,’ Teo agreed, as he blasted a group of reanimated corpses that were heading for the rectory’s back door. ‘Can you believe we’ve had to deal with this shit more than once? I feel like zombies should be a once in a lifetime thing.’
‘We’ll make next year our first full zombie free year as a couple, yeah?’ Emily said.
Teo blasted another section of the shuffling monsters. ‘We are the keepers of strange promises,’ he said.
– Jonathan McKinney, Not Even Stars
You can find a compilation of short reviews of Jonathan McKinney’s previous writing here in my Siren Stories post.
The Siren Stories website is here and they are running a massive sale at the current date of this post, to celebrate the launch of Not Even Stars.