This story follows Eska, a fifteen-year-old Sourceror (note the spelling difference) who is captured by the enemy during a battle and tossed into the Pit, this world’s version of prison. Except it’s pretty much all people for themselves, and there are no cages. They are forced by their jailers to dig endlessly for no apparent purpose as punishment for their crimes. Her best friend, Josef, is also in the Pit. They were captured instead of killed by what Eska perceives to be betrayal by Josef. He convinced her to surrender instead of fight to the death, and hence, they are in the Pit. A man Eska knows as the overseer tries to convince her to join the side of the Orrelans (she is Terrelan) using various torture methods, but Eska is either too stubborn or too stupid (really, it’s hard to tell which one. Both, maybe?) to capitulate. She and Josef are two of the last remaining powerful Sourcerors, who have the ability to control more than one Source – highly unusual in this world.
Here is where the author really stands out. I was curious how much world-building could be done when most of the story is set in the Pit – an underground prison. Hayes uses first-person narration, which is effective in conveying the uniqueness of this world. Eska isn’t one of my favorite characters ever (more on that later), but because the POV is first person and largely omniscient, the world takes on many layers – layers that would have been more obscure had the POV been different. The story is told when Eska is older - it’s unclear how much older she is – and there are lots of hints that she is a powerful Queen. The intrigue builds as the story goes along, and usually this would drive me nuts. But the way Hayes does it is mostly effective. And it makes Eska more likable, which was very necessary.
The magic system was rather curious to me. There are 22 Sources – some type of rock/gym that can be swallowed and their power used by the host. However, the Sources will eventually kill the host, so the host must always carry Spiceweed, a substance that induces vomiting so the Source can be regurgitated and not kill the person who swallowed it. Most Sourcerors are attuned to one, maybe two, Sources. Except for Eska and Josef, who are attuned to five and six, respectively. Eska is best with Sources that can use fire and summon monsters from the Other World, and Josef is well-trained with one that uses empathy to manipulate emotions.
The characters were the weakest part of this book, in my opinion, although not so weak as to ruin it. I didn’t really find myself cheering for anyone in particular, least of all Eska. There were parts of her that were redeemable: she was taken as child to be trained as a Sourceror, so there was some empathy I felt for her being torn from her family. She had a love for Josef as a closer-than-a-brother-friend, yet had no problem leaving him behind when she escapes from the Pit for really petty reasons. Really, I’d describe her as an annoying, petty teenager who blames everyone else at every opportunity to escape the reality of her own darkness.
There is one really neat aspect of the book that begs mentioning. I’m a huge sucker for the “inner darkness caused by demons/monsters” trope where someone is joined or taken over by a beast who then resides inside of them. There are several writers who do this well – Mark Lawrence with Nona, Robert Jordan with Rand, I’ve used it in my own writing (hence probably why I’m partial to it!), and now Hayes with Eska. She has an encounter with a monster called Ssserakis (with a name like that how can you go wrong?) after making a deal that it will let her live in exchange for Eska helping it to escape. Ssserakis feeds off of fear, and lives in Eska - indefinitely, as far as the reader knows. This adds a great element to the story, and helps to make Eska a little more redeemable.
There was one character I truly liked, now that I think about it. I also have a soft spot for the “crazy old wise man” trope. Tamura is such a character. He’s zany, lovable, and adds a bit of lightness to an otherwise dark and gloomy story.
Dark and gloomy it is, but it also has themes that force the reader to grapple with heavy issues. How does one respond when forced to face the part of themselves they hate the most? What do you do when a friend betrays you? How far would you be willing to go to exact revenge on those who have wronged you? While I do have my complaints about Eska and her moral character, I think she is supposed to be the type of person who makes your skin crawl. The choices she makes obviously lead to her being powerful, but is it worth it? Hayes seems to hint that it isn’t: she’s willing to compromise friendship, trust, and love to get what she wants. And in the end, it reveals her to be just as much of a monster as the one living inside of her.
All in all, this was a fabulous read. 4/5 stars for me, and I really look forward to book 2. You can pre-order Along the Razor’s Edge. I’d highly recommend you do so. It releases on March 30th, 2020.