A woodcutter’s son’s and a new queen’s paths intertwine in this debut middle-grade high fantasy.
Twelve-year-old Thorn is unexpectedly purchased at a slave market far from home by Tyburn, executioner for the dread Shadow family, necromancer rulers of Gehenna. Thorn agrees to work (slavery is illegal in Gehenna) for a year and a day in exchange for money and passage home so he can right a wrong. The narrative switches perspectives and introduces Lily, newly crowned queen of Gehenna after the recent murder of her family. Lily’s been promised to the priggish Gabriel Solar in an attempt to reconcile generations of animosity between their lands. Encouraged by her beloved but chronically drunk uncle to marry for her people’s sake, Lily resists, a decision that seems unlikely, empowered, and selfish simultaneously. When Lily and Thorn meet they become fast friends, attempting to solve the mystery surrounding Lily’s family’s murder. Though the setup is promising, Khan’s plot is uneven, and there’s too little character development to compensate. And though it's commendable that Lily doesn’t need Thorn to rescue her, a deus ex machina mantle saves the day instead. Hibon’s black-and-white illustrations recall Chris Riddell’s; both Thorn and Lily appear to be white.
A kingdom that embraces darkness but not evil is an interesting concept but not enough to make up for choppy pacing and flat characters; here’s hoping the sequel is better balanced. (map, cast of characters) (Fantasy. 9-13)