Overall Score: 91/100 (9.1 out of 10)
Book One: 94/100 (9.4 out of 10)
Book Two: 87/100 (8.7 out of 10)
Book Three: 91/100 (9.1 out of 10)
Book One "Era of Undying"
Score: 94/100 (9.4 out of 10)
“Era of Undying” by Emilie Knight is a very strong fantasy novel with compelling main characters that introduces us to an intriguing--albeit frightening--universe in which the luxury of death has been robbed from its inhabitants and miscreants lurk around every corner of the countryside. It is beautifully written and well-paced.
What really makes this book work, beside the solid writing by Knight, are the two leads: Pen and Tellus. No, this isn't a couple on a vacation that went south. This isn't a love story. It's more complex and unique than that. The two have such great chemistry. Their relationship evolves throughout the book. At first, there's a lot of tension as Tellus, captain of the king's guard, is charged with keeping Pen under lock and guard. However, they grow together with every new chapter and every turn of the page. They develop almost like a father-daughter or big-brother/little-sister relationship. Pen is constantly amused by Tellus's vulnerabilities and quirks. Tellus, despite his reputation and large stature, is a soft-hearted, compassionate, and loving person with an eye for the queen but an unwavering loyalty to the king. We even get some moments in which Pen rolls her eyes at him flirting with some women around a campfire.
Perhaps the best moment in the entire book is just a moment when Pen wakes up from a torturous nightmare to find herself being comforted and coddled by Tellus who says he didn't know what else to do as he didn't want to see her suffering like that.
Pen is also a very good character. It's not just that she has a pretty cool power in being able to weaponize her blood and take advantage of the undying like everyone else. What really makes her character work is the amount of peril she is placed in and the relentlessness of the peril. If you've ever seen the movie “Gravity” starring Sandra Bullock, the character is constantly dealing with one crisis-in-space after another. Pen's tumultuous journey in this book has a similar feeling. What's interesting is that she is a vulnerable character despite being unable to die or be permanently maimed. We still worry about her or a loved one being seriously hurt.
This book features one of the most touching character deaths we've read in a fiction novel in a long time, and it's largely due to the way that Knight is able to make us care about her characters.
One of the things that makes Pen a strong character is her conscience. She is always concerned about others and the consequences of her actions. She wonders about the suffering that the “undying” experience after being decapitated, burned, or even eaten. The fact that these things actually concern her are very telling about her humanity and good heart.
Unfortunately, a lot of the positive, touching spirit of this book gets buried in the next book, which focuses more on the dark fantasy, torture porn, and body horror aspects of the series that are only briefly touched on here. Near the end of this book, we are also introduced to Dagger and Scythe, the title characters of book two, although they're more of a cameo than major characters here. We're also introduced to Nyx, another major character.
Among the many trials Pen and Tellus face is a dramatic encounter with a cannibalistic tribe. Perhaps the author recently played “The Last of Us” around the time she wrote this book? You get those “creepy cannibal vibes” from these tribes people like you got from David in that game.
Tellus is also put in danger at various points in the book along with Pen. The two have many close calls. It's this tension, peril, danger, conscientiousness, and intrigue that make “Era of Undying” a very strong fantasy novel!
Book Two “Dagger & Scythe”
Score: 87/100 (8.7 out of 10)
This series literally went from FernGully to Hostel in 60 seconds, and the teaser at the end of book one was not adequate preparation for that jarring change in tone. If you didn't get your fill of grotesque horror and dismemberment in book one or were wondering why this dark fantasy series didn't seem so dark after all, then Knight decided to answer your concerns by supercompensating for that in book two.
This series becomes VERY DARK and, in effect, much more niche. This book is not for everyone, especially the faint of heart. We're not prudish either. We've written and consumed some very gnarly stuff too involving flaying, burning, dismembering, live vivisection, impaling, sawing-in-half, and more. However, usually when the flaying, burning, dismembering, live vivisection, impaling, sawing-in-half, etc. are being performed, they are being performed by someone (an antagonist or a villain) who we're supposed to root against or hate.
Imagine if “The Patriot” was “The Story of Colonel Tavington” in which you were supposed to root for the British a-hole as he burned down a church filled with village folk including women, children, and the elderly. No, we want to see a comeuppance. We want to see the wicked one take a bayonet to the throat or fall off Notre Dame Cathedral into a pit of fiery, molten... lava? Anyway, that's not what we get. Instead, we're saddled with two characters—Dagger and Scythe—who, unlike Pen in the previous book, have a moral compass held by about 3-5% of the population: sociopaths. Yes, they're interesting, but in the way that Ted Bundy and Elizabeth Bathory are interesting. We wouldn't invite them into our home or want to hang out with them for any significant amount of time.
The two have somewhat of a chemistry, but in the way that Charles Manson and the Manson Girls had somewhat of a chemistry. First of all, they're forced together through an arranged marriage of utter convenience. We only learn about their prior somewhat-closeness through offhand mentions and passing comments. The two fight well together and make a great team in that regard.
The way that gore is described in this book is both terrific and horrifying—isn't it supposed to be? The screams of victims are compared to music, and the blood and guts are said to shine, glisten, and glow. It's highly glamorized to an almost sickening degree. But at the same time, it's obvious that the author is not entirely relishing in it because the victims are sometimes humanized and given a bit of a personality, enough to make us feel even more horrible.
Putting aside the sadism for a moment, Dagger is actually not a great guy in almost any way other than his ability to fight. He expresses all the red flags of an abusive, controlling, manipulative partner as in how he consistently guilts Scythe whenever she gains the attention of anyone who isn't him. He is easily annoyed even about minor things she says and seems quick to anger. There is a somewhat funny line after Scythe tries to flirt with a barkeeper for a favor only to get turned down, returning to Dagger and telling him he would've had better luck with him.
Do they worry about each other when the other is suffering or in danger? Yeah. But we're sure Elizabeth Bathory worried about her kids between the times she was burning young servant girls with hot tongs and stabbing them with needles. Does that make us care about her and her kids? No. It makes us hope they fall into a time machine to 1450 to get impaled by Vlad as opposition. And now we're the monsters. “Master Skywalker, there are too many of them. What are we going to do?”
Beside the characters seeming problematic, especially compared to Pen and Tellus in book one, the plot is also somewhat hollow by comparison. The thing about a plot as Knight effectively demonstrated in book one is that it needs to move along in a meaningful way from scene to scene and place to place. Instead, it just kinda drags and happens in book two. We're sure we're supposed to be witnessing the growth in the relationship between Dagger and Scythe like with Pen and Tellus, but they are almost impossible to like and cheer for by virtue of being such despicable people, bloodlust or no bloodlust. But back to the topic of the plot, it's actually so hollow and uneventful that 3/4ths of the way in, Nyx has to show up in true Deus Ex fashion and essentially tell them, “I know you've been dragging your feet and grinding your gears in essentially the same unchanged situation for 150 pages, but I now have a new plo—I mean, new task for you.” There is seriously a moment in this book when Dagger & Scythe have nothing better to do, so they consider overthrowing the king only to conclude that he's "not really a tyrant" and that they just don't like being told what to do. Insert Linkin Park music here.
It's very difficult to hate Nyx in either book. She's polite, she's understanding, she puts up with truckloads of BS including from Dagger and Scythe, and most importantly: none of this is really her fault, she's just doing what she does because she needs to do it. She's like Galactus. We don't blame her at all.
So, why is this still an 8.7/10 despite the much less likable characters and weaker plot compared to book one? Because of the signature great writing of Emilie Knight, especially her vivid descriptions and masterful use of the English language to shock and horrify.
Also because of all the kudos to the living skeleton people and intrigue about how they're able to eat and dance despite being... skeleton people.
Book Three “Grief of the Undying”
Score: 91/100 (9.1 out of 10)
“Grief of the Undying” gets the story back on track as we rejoin the most compelling character in this series, Pen, in the aftermath of the Era of Undying. The spirit of adventure and peril return as well. So, a lot of the things that made book one work make their way back in along with some of the macabre yet intriguing elements of book two. The problem is, the second most compelling character from book one (Tellus) is absent along with many of the conflicts in the previous books. The Era of Undying is over. Scythe & Dagger had mostly resolved their issues in the previous book, and the only things really left to explore that the reader has any emotional investment in are Pen's unresolved personal problems. Pen has experienced tremendous loss and is still coping with grief. In fact, this is quite a good book about trudging on in spite of loss and grief. Among her unresolved personal issues is her late father, which prompts some of the most interesting parts of the book as Pen seeks to uncover the grave (pun intended) secret her father may have been buried with. There's a ere of mystery to Pen pursuing the truth.
Now, book three does something that book two did that seemed quite jarring. We get introduced to the fresh new plot about 1/3rd of the way through. This book goes from an emotion-filled yet exciting town-hopping, grave-robbing adventure to an almost Sherlock Holms/Jack the Ripper plot involving a mysterious string of deaths that needs to be solved. This plot involving the Fang of Stymphalia consumes much of the remainder of the book. We thought this series was winding down, but side-quests can be fun, right? Maybe there was more to all of it, but we were kinda distracted with battling PTSD flashbacks from all the losses in book one and the entirety of book two.
Thankfully, this Fang of Stymphalia arc prompts the return of some of the better characters in the series—the members of the Ragged Wolves from book one. It also involves Dagger & Scythe from book two, but they do seem a bit neutered as they take up a supporting role again. They still seem to have their signature oddities including eliciting their cold and snarky personalities. You can easily pick that up by the way they talk and act. Raisa and the other supporting characters never rise to being nearly as likable or compelling as Tellus was. It would be the equivalent of Wreck-it Ralph excluding Ralph and focusing on Vanellope and Fix-it Felix Jr. The latter two are great and fun characters, but something just feels missing without Ralph. Something feels missing without Tellus. It's not like the author forgot about him either (at least), but there's still a hole left in his absence.
It's kinda like when a new companion is introduced in Doctor Who--we all naturally hate her/him because we still have a soft spot for the former one. At the same time, Steve Moffit will still try to jam them down our throats promising, "You'll love Clara just as much as Amy! Just give it some time!"
Another thing notable is that the author or narrator's voice intrudes into the prose. This happened in previous books but is most noticeable in book three. For example, there are instances when the author or narrator apparently comes in with expletive-filled reactions to the events that are occurring. For example, to paraphrase, there are times when something will happen to a character or there'll be a big surprise, and the author/narrator's voice will intrude like “Oh, *%&$, did that really happen to that character I'm talking about!? What even the #$*#!?” There are even moments when the author/narrator is outright cheering for the protagonist and for them to do something—almost like “I sure hope Pen bashes in that one guy's face!” It is similar to how color commentators will fill their commentary with OMGs and did-you-just-see-thats to try to add spice for the audience watching at home. However, the reader should be having these reactions organically.
Pen's conscience and humanity is in the driver's seat of the series again as she is consumed by guilt and her aforementioned grief for allowing so many terrible things happen to her loved ones. It's Pen who we really care about, and it's because of this and the author's continued great writing that this book shines. She's always a breath of fresh air in this series.
Get the books at the links below!
Era of Undying
Dagger and Scythe
Grief of the Undying