A young woman must stop a plague of beasts that threatens civilization in this fantasy debut.
Ri is torn from life in her island village by the Culling, a mysterious horde of creatures that descend on human settlements and kill everyone they can find. She’s rescued by Bryce, a young healer who possesses the eponymous ability to enter waterfalls in one area of the world and emerge in a completely different one. They wind up in Black Valley, a city filled with destitution and ruled by a shadowy tyrant. As Ri strives to return home to her ailing adoptive father, Samuel, she, Bryce, and other traveling companions journey through abandoned temples, encounter spirits, and battle a variety of terrifying monsters. As Ri learns more about her fellow travelers and wrestles with her romantic feelings for two of them, she realizes that the Culling is a symptom of a deeper ill with global implications—one whose cause is deeply intertwined with the three gods who hold sway over the land (Fate, Death, and Eisanea) and her new acquaintances, including Samuel himself. Lem cleverly intersperses these revelations throughout the story, providing tantalizing plot twists and action scenes in tight, forceful prose. Some scenes aren’t for the faint of heart: characters die in gory detail (evisceration, stabbing, getting their soul sucked out); the gods seem uncaring and sometimes downright malicious; and the survivors struggle through vast, desolate wastelands—deserts, dark forests, and storm-tossed seas—that are exhausting even to read about. The characters’ pasts don’t offer up much solace either; like the landscapes, they’re filled mostly with despair. But although the story can dwell a bit too much on the ennobling power of suffering, the cast’s varied motivations, desires, and personalities are vividly sketched out, illustrating just how far they’re willing to go for their loved ones. Meanwhile, hints of humor and self-awareness leaven the story’s melodramatic tendencies.
A gripping, harrowing adventure tale propelled by a complex, mythology-inflected plot.