There is a certain amount of pressure when you are waiting for a book before, well it is in the infancy stages because, well you just have an instinct about it. And then the pressure doubles down because you commit to supporting it before you even get to read the ARC because, well, now you’ve gotten to interact with the author and she’s just sunshine and light and kindness. And well, speaking for myself there just isn’t much of that going on in the world lately. Plus, you still have this instinct about the book.
And so, I had all this pressure and all these expectations, plus my ethics, which are trumped by nothing, walking into my reading of Kelly Coon’s (Q and A) debut, Gravemaidens (Kelly Coon’s Website and pre-order link), last month.
Yes, it was on my WWW last week, but that was because my Goodreads game SUCKS (as everyone knows) and because I wanted to pump up my review that was coming today.
By the time I finished reading Gravemaidens, well, my instincts were on point. What I didn’t expect and what completely overwhelmed me was that, in my view, Gravemaidens refused to be pigeonholed as either a plot-driven or character-driven book. Instead, Coon provides equal weight between the plot and the characters without sacrificing the development of either. In doing so, Gravemaidens is able to lay the foundations of the first book in a series, without ever feeling like it. Having the character and plot evenly push and pull each other evenly along leaves space for each to breathe and grow without ever dragging.
Instead two complicated and very different sisters (Nanaea and Kammani) are forced by choice and circumstance to find themselves and their bond as sisters. It isn’t insta-heroism but a series of growth spurs that anyone their age would undertake on their way to finding their truths around higher emotional understandings.
My mantra as an educator was, I’m not a parent because I’m not and I never wanted any parent to feel like I was trying to say otherwise. I have spent enough time around adolescents to understand the 0-kaboom factor that hides in all of them. And it is the edge that both girls live on at the beginning of Gravemaidens, but for very different reasons.
Kammani had to grow up too soon, after the death of their mother, and the exile of their family from royalty. Without protection or a chance to have a real childhood, it made her strong, tough, fearless and relentless. But it also led to a very mistrusting type of – keep your friends close and your enemies closer – maybe even your friends are your enemies- but go ahead and let them think they are your friends, kind of life. Because it is self-preservation.
However, Kammani has a plan. She will be come the greatest healer in Alu, as her father once was. And she will restore her family’s status among royalty, ending their banishment. And then, Alu’s ruler becomes terminally ill.
Tradition dictates that three Gravemaidens, the most beautiful girls in Alu, must be chosen to live in the castle with him. During this time the Gravemaidens are doted on, every whim appeased, feasts prepared and parties aplenty. Seems like heaven, yes? Well, yes. Literally. Because when he dies. They pass on with him. Literally. No more parties. They don’t inherit his throne. Nope. They die, too. So, while everyone sees this as a cherished calling, a bestowed honor and a chance for revelry, one sees right through it all. Kammani. She knows it is too good to be true. This isn’t a fairytale.
And when Nanaea is one of the three chosen? Kammani knows- she isn’t Cinderella. In fact, she’s just been sentenced to death. And Kammani vows to be the hell and the high water to stay Nanaea’s execution. I won’t say that at the end of Gravemaidens Kammani and Nanaea become the same person because that would be ridiculous and unrealistic. It wouldn’t make for good writing.
But their growth and character arcs match that of any adolescents fighting in today’s world and the challenges they face. With fortitude they find bravery and each other. They grow and mature, not with a snap of the fingers but with fits and starts. As we all do, really. Neither the characters nor plot are used as devices to just move the other along. They work together as one and that is rare, indeed. And at the end, it leaves you wanting a lot more for the second installment.
Gravemaidens is unique for its structure, character development and intricate plot. A plot that dives into classism, social constructs around beauty and sexism. However, it is the fact that this is a debut novel that makes it more unique than any other point I’ve made.