The city of Serei is dominated by two religious factions. The male seers are gifted with ‘watersight’, a telepathic ability that works through connection to water. The female theracants, derogatorily called witches, work blood magic, allowing them to literally control people whose blood they have ingested.
Altheia is an oddity - a female seer. She is also the daughter of the previous Chosen, leader of the seers - which is the only reason she was admitted to the temple for training in the first place. But her father is dead - murdered, she suspects, by a faction of Traditionalists within the temple who were opposed to her father’s modernising ways.
When the new Chosen, Nerimes, attempts to have her executed, Altheia escapes the temple into the streets of Serei, where she must abandon her moral training and learn to live as a thief alongside her newfound friend Gaxna, herself a runaway from the Theracants. But she remains driven to uncover the truth behind her father’s death, and to find revenge.
The story is told in first person present tense, which itself gives an air of immediacy and pace to the story, but even allowing for this, it moves forward at speed. We begin with Altheia in the midst of combat and this sets the tone for the whole book. There is urgency and tension in almost every scene, driving the story on.
The writing is excellent, the worldbuilding rich and some descriptive passages truly immersive. On one occasion I was moved to stop and reread two paragraphs just to appreciate how well they set a scene. This is a book that drives the plot forward without sacrificing the world in which it is set. The magic Jacobs has created is both interesting and, to me, fresh.
And the scope of that world is wide. What seems like it will be a tight, personal story quickly expands to a grander scale, up to international politics and, literally, a potential apocalypse. The story, however, does not end here. The author explains there are at least 8 more books to come, so while there is a satisfying story arc completed within its pages, it is very much the first book of an ongoing series, with scope for exploring the much wider world hinted at within.
There are also a lot of interesting themes and issues to consider from the story. The most obvious is about gender and the binary infliction of gender roles within a traditional (religious) framework. Altheia does not fit into either camp completely and could easily be read as an allegorical, maybe even literal, nonbinary character, her very existence a challenge to the strict binary culture of Serei.
The story also involves a race called the Selim Deul, who are renowned inventors, and their sudden growth into global politics and trade can easily be seen as an analogue for the explosion of technology and how it affects a society, especially one still so dominated by religion. In fact, there are hints throughout the book about a potential lost race of more technologically advanced people, whose now incomprehensible works have been left behind. This, along with the historical references to worldwide flooding could be read as a cautionary tale for our own time.
So overall, a thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking read. I did have one niggle, though. It’s impossible to completely describe without being a spoiler, but there is a piece of wordplay within the book that, almost immediately, I spotted as a major clue to the identity of a secret antagonist. In fact, it was more than a clue, it was a giveaway. And it stretched my incredulity a little as I considered why on Earth they would leave this huge clue as to their identity.
Now, this is another book I would say is firmly YA, with some standard YA tropes, and maybe this kind of clue was intended to be something that readers would spot and find some satisfaction in, but it leapt off the page at me and pulled me out of the story.
However, it was, in the end, a small thing that didn’t really take away from the quality of the book overall, except to remove one element of tension and mystery for me, personally.
I enjoyed this a lot, and found myself drawn back to reading it as often as possible. It’s an extremely well-written book that flies by and leaves you wanting more.