Review: Nevernight by Jay Kristoff

Nevernight by Jay Kristoff (Nevernight Chronicles #1)

Genre: Fantasy

Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books on August 9, 2016

Source: Publisher

My thanks to the publisher for providing me with a digital review copy. No compensation was provided for this review, and all opinions are my own.

In a land where three suns almost never set, a fledgling killer joins a school of assassins, seeking vengeance against the powers who destroyed her family.

Not for the faint of heart, Jay Kristoff’s NEVERNIGHT introduces Mia Corvere, a young would-be assassin whose unique abilities and burning desire for revenge make her a formidable foe…

Despite her many flaws, I immediately felt sympathetic towards Mia and found myself rooting for her and the success of her mission. Her need to be accepted into the Red Church, a school of assassins in the service of the Lady of Blessed Murder bordered on an insane desperation that spoke of a seriously dark backstory. And as Kristoff slowly peels back her layers, Mia’s need to avenge her familia and take down the corrupt Consul who had them killed becomes more and more nuanced.

NEVERNIGHT got off to a rocky start, with an opening chapter plagued by purple prose and that ultimately made very little sense. But I persisted in spite of my confusion, and was rewarded by a gripping novel with high stakes and fascinating world building. Stories of teen assassins who do very little actual killing are a dime a dozen, but have no fear: Mia and her classmates at the Red Church are in no way reluctant to kill. The blood flows fast and furious in this story, and as Mia navigates her way through the trials presented by her instructors, you’ll find yourself swept up in this story of vengeance, family, and personal discovery.

While some readers may disagree, I personally really liked the sporadic footnotes throughout the text, which were used to explain various intricacies of the world. Kristoff uses his dry humour to perfection in these footnotes, breaking up the admittedly quite grim narration and expanding upon the ancient Roman-inspired social, cultural, and political structure of the Republic. I needed those moments of calm during which to catch my breath and take stock of what was going on around Mia and her shadow. Sadly, the footnotes often veered into the overly flowery style that I disliked in his steampunk novel STORMDANCER but their interesting content kept me from being too bothered by it.

Yes, this brings me to the fantasy elements of NVERNIGHT, which were a bit too absent for my tastes. Sure, the gods and goddesses are considered real and alchemical practices are well-known, but that does not a fantasy novel make. But as I suggested, Mia is no ordinary initiate of the Red Church: she has a sentient shadow who never leaves her…and whose insatiable hunger she feeds with her own fear. YUP, that’s right: a fearless assassin who can use magic to bend shadows. What could possibly go wrong? Quite a lot, of course.

So you may be wondering why I only gave this one three stars if I have mostly good things to say about it. The answer to that is…I didn’t feel like NEVERNIGHT had a whole lot to offer in terms of originality. Seemingly hardened young protagonist goes through horrible violence and fights at a boarding school of sorts, only to face the ultimate test. We’ve all seen that before.

And now for the big reason why I have problems with NEVERNIGHT. Readers on twitter asked Jay Kristoff about his problematic representation of a racial group inspired by Maori (according to Kristoff) and his response was…sketchy in the extreme. Other people in the bookish community, namely Anjulie Te Pohe, have commented on this much more eloquently and from a much more informed perspective than I ever could. Here is Anjulie’s post.  Personally, I would not have read this book had I known about this whole thing before hand, so I thought y’all might like to be forewarned.


Have you read NEVERNIGHT? How do you respond when authors make problematic statements/interactions with readers on social media? Let me know in the comments!

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  • Siobhan

    I’ve wanted to read this book for awhile, but hearing all the issues with it, I wonder if I should even bother at this point.

    I’ve witnessed some authors simply say, “I screwed up! Show me what I’ve done wrong.” A good example is Schwab, if my memory serves me correctly. Veronica Roth is causing a lot of controversy in the book community. And I’ve heard that Harper dissolved a contract with a sponsored blogger who told the publisher she will post a negative review. And Roth is mum on the situation. I hope that the authors admit they haven’t thought of the issues than to simply ignore them. I’ll give them an avenue to learn and to grow, but I won’t harshly criticize them. Now if they aren’t addressing or just denying the issues, I have a problem.

    • Yeah, I’ve seen a couple of those responses too and I think that they’re the ideal response (that’s my opinion, anyway). One that I know of is Robin Talley, who received a comment on Tumblr about her use of the phrase “totem pole” — Talley then contacted her editor, had them change the phrase to something less charged, and apologized to anyone offended. Sometimes owning up to it is all fans really want, I think.

      Oh Veronica Roth…I’ve seen a lot of that controversy and it makes me so mad, but I hadn’t heard anything about the blogger contract! That is so messed up. I know that most things in this world have a problematic element if you’re reading/watching/listening closely enough, but as long as people are aware of it and creators can listen to criticism then I’m okay with it too!

      • Siobhan

        Sorry for the late reply! I haven’t seen your comment until now. -_-

        Some authors honestly hadn’t thought of the issues. So seeing them apologize and, at least, fixing the problems are fine with me. Sometimes I don’t even think of them at the time.

        Here’s the Goodreads link to the review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1789138449?book_show_action=true&from_review_page=1

        I was surprised. Her name and brand may have affected the editor’s ability to say, “Hey now, hold up. Look at this, this, and that.” I don’t expect everything to be problematic-free, but I’d expect some edits on controversial passages. Or have the author use them as a way to drive the story. Not the case here.

  • I tried this way back and this :”NEVERNIGHT got off to a rocky start, with an opening chapter plagued by purple prose and that ultimately made very little sense” is exactly why I ditched it. I just couldn’t get into the writing and I’m not one to really give a book a chance if I can’t get into it within the first 10%. And then the whole controversy of his response to that teen. Ugh. Ultimately, I’m glad I didn’t read the book. Honestly, every YA fantasy seems to be the same to me. I want something fresh and unique. I mean there’s just so much potential. Why must we get the same old story all the time?
    Thanks for talking about the race/ethnicity discussion in your review! <3

    • Hahaha, well I knew that the first chunk was going to be difficult to read because that was my exact experience with his other fantasy novel, Sotrmdancer. Apparently that one has problematic representation too, but I was not “woke” enough at the time to catch it (sigh…). Honestly, I wouldn’t have nearly as much of a problem with this if the author hadn’t dragged the whole thing out with a reader online, but now I feel compelled to discuss it at much greater length than I would have otherwise.

      I couldn’t agree more about fresh and unique stories in YA fantasy! The hunt definitely continues, hahaha.

  • Hmmm, not sure what I can say about this. I personally loved Nevernight, and I honestly didn’t hear about this controversy until now. I read the post you linked up to and she definitely has some valid points. But I also have to back up the readers who are saying “it’s fiction!” There seems to be so much pressure these days to write diverse fiction, and when a white author tries to jump into the ring, it seems they often get attacked for “not doing it right.” It’s always nice when authors do their homework, but sometimes they just want to tell a really good story.

    • Honestly, I know what you mean. For me the problem isn’t poor representation, or offending readers, it’s when authors can’t seem to take a step back and say “you’re right and I’ll do better,” you know? Everyone is wrong sometimes and we’ve all got to take our lumps, haha. I do think that when an author creates a world where the only people of colour (at least the only ones introduced in this first book) are inspired by a real life culture of people who are easily identifiable, then the onus is on the author to do a good job representing that culture. If you want to make up your own culture from scratch, that’s a different story! That’s just my take on it, anyway.

  • Lisa (@TenaciousReader)

    I did not love this book, so while I wish you enjoyed it more, on some level I like feeling a bit of camaraderie that there are others that did not love it either (so many glowing reviews of it).

    • There are definitely a lot of people who adored this one! Maybe it’s because it took me so long to get through (I kind of read it in fits and starts), but I found much of the book to be quite slow. Oh well, it’s just one less series that I need to keep up with!

  • MaddalenaSpaceandSorcery

    I was intrigued by this book when I first learned about it: after all the author represents half of the writing team that created “Illuminae”, so I was eager to sample his solo work. Then I heard about the footnotes, and the way they break the narrative flow, and now about “purple prose”, and my initial enthusiasm is flagging a little. Still, where there are controversial opinions, there might be great material for discussions, so… I still will give this one a try.
    Thank you for a very thoughtful review! 🙂

    • I loved Illuminae too, but for some reason I seem to struggle with Kristoff’s solo work…I’ve never read any of Kaufman’s solo stuff (has she written any?), so maybe that’ll work better for me. Great point Maddalena! Where there’s controversial reading, there’s sure to be a lively discussion about it. Hopefully you enjoy this one more than I did, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts on it!

  • I’ve been struggling to read this book for forever and I just couldn’t get into it. Not because of the racial issue but more because it took a real long time for anything to happen and I began to get bored. I may attempt to reread as I do won a copy but after reading Anjulie’s post about the problematic representation of the Dweymeri and how they relate to the Maori I am shocked and disgu

    • It took me forever and a day to get into this one too, honestly. I only actually got up the will to finish it because I wanted to up my NetGalley ratio and bring it to a more respectable number, haha. Right? That’s what I immediately thought as well. Kristoff is Australian so his ignorance is even more problematic than it would otherwise be. That’d be like if I wrote a fantasy novel that horribly misrepresented Canada’s Indigenous peoples…just terrible all around.

      I couldn’t agree with you more, Becky. The reality of life is that everyone is ignorant about some things, and people – including authors – make mistakes. But you’ve got to own up to those mistakes and accept constructive criticism when it’s offered, not make everything worse by trading tweets and emails and phone calls with your readers.

      Hahaha, yeah I was in a moral dilemma after reading it! Once I heard about all the controversy and read people’s well-reasoned posts, I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to post this review (since it’s mostly favourable aside from the part where I call out the representation issues).

      • I think the whole problematic aspect of this book just puts it on a backburner for me. I know I got the book in a book box and so I should read it but it can wait. I want to spend time reading books I’ll know I’ll like and I hate dragging myself through a book waiting for it to hook me.

        And exactly, I get we’re all human and we are flawed and owning up to your mistakes is hard (trust me, I am still slightly convinced I am a flawless person) but why not just say my bad? I feel like he just dug himself into a bigger hole by trying to skirt around the issue.

        And you are allowed to enjoy problematic books if you realise they’re problematic. The fact you address the issues is enough so people know what’s they’re in for and avoid if they want to. I know I appreciate it.

  • Lynn Williams

    I also enjoyed this. I wasn’t aware of this whole debate though. I live a very secluded existence and never catch onto these things! Such a shame for the author and the blogger tbh. I’m kind of with Tammy and hope that Kristoff was just focusing on writing a good story. Albeit one with purple prose and slightly aggravating footnotes (at least when I first started reading).
    Lynn 😀

    • HA! Well, for the most part I think being secluded from Twitter drama is probably the way to go, Lynn. I agree, it’s unfortunate for everyone involved…I just wish that people could own up to the fact that you can make bad decisions in the name of writing a good story, you know? I’m pretty sure that the blogger he interacted with would’ve been fine with an “I didn’t realize this and I’m sorry.” Sigh. Oh well!

  • Heh, poor Jay Kristoff, why does he always seem to get in trouble with his representations? With his Lotus War trilogy, there was an uproar with his representation of Japanese and Asian cultures too, IIRC. Anyway, personally I’m probably more on the side of focusing on writing a good story and let’s not get too hung up on attacking authors for “not doing it right” (i.e. what Lynn and Tammy have already expressed so much more eloquently than I have).

    However, I will concede I’d probably be less tolerant with lazy, problematic representations if the genre was historical fiction; I am much more relaxed when it comes to fantasy/sci-fi. To be fair though, I think my more casual views might come from being ethnically Chinese and used to seeing my culture being borrowed and appropriated to no end in pop culture over the decades. Look at Rogue One, for example – apparently Asians are Samurai, Ninjas, or Kung Fu masters no matter where or when you are in the galaxy! But generally, as long as the representation is done without overt racism or malicious intent, it doesn’t bother me. You also don’t hire Donnie Yen for anything without expecting him to kick some ass, and he kick ass he did ;-P

    • Hahahah it certainly does seem to be the way of things, doesn’t it? I confess that I was totally unaware of the representation issues in The Lotus War trilogy, but it doesn’t surprise me. I definitely agree that we shouldn’t be attacking anyone for bad representation, but I do think it’s important to call it out when you see it. That way people who may be more affected by it (i.e. people like the blogger in this incident, who is Maori herself) can choose to avoid it if they want to.

      There definitely seems to be more leniency for representation issues in SF/F, which I find so interesting. People often talk about SF/F as being a kind of lens through which we view our own world/society/culture, so I’d think that people would be more concerned about smudges or imperfections on that lens than they are (if that makes any sense). Admittedly, my culture has pretty much never been appropriated so I can’t speak from any real experience there.

      Ugh, that bothered me too! As much as I enjoyed Rogue One I just thought…man. Can’t we have one Asian character who isn’t a Samurai or martial arts master??? You’re so right though, that is what Donnie Yen does best, hahaha.

  • Hmmmm, I had not heard about that

  • You know, I only recently heard about the Kristoff representation issue thing – he kind of made a mess of that, didn’t he. Just because someone is a POC does not mean that he/she is always correct about racial issues.

    I think I remember feeling similarly, about this book? I liked it and I think I ended up giving it 4 stars, but it was more like 3.5 stars. I wasn’t totally pulled in by the fantasy, or Mia, but I ended up liking her, in the end. I think? I don’t even remember. 😀

    Great review, Danya! Have a wonderful day. =)

    Alyssa @ The Eater of Books!

    • YES! He totally made a mess of it, which is unfortunate because I feel like he could’ve resolved it very easily, simply by recognizing that what he wrote offended readers and apologizing. WHY can’t people just admit when they’ve done wrong??? Sigh.

      Hahaha, well you do read an insane number of books Alyssa so I’m not too surprised you don’t remember that much. 😉 I definitely liked Mia more and more as the book progressed, and I enjoyed it despite its issues. Thanks Alyssa!

  • I actually read the book back when it was still new and there weren’t any problematic discussions about it and quite enjoyed it. I absolutely enjoy dark fantasy and Nevernight was right up my alley. The purple prose, i actually found fun 😛 I only learnt of his tweets later and realized that they were problematic. I didn’t think the book was problematic when I first read it but then I found his rather sketchy explanation was definitely problematic. Truthfully I didn’t know about Maori culture but after the entire thing, I googled everything up and understood why people found it problematic! But I honestly don’t think he meant to hurt anyone? Although I do think he should give a proper explanation to what he has written and accept the mistake on his side. And as for your question, I afraid I’ve never had the guts to straight up tell an author that there is problematic representation in their book *trying to be more brave though* I think that’s mostly because social media like twitter seems extremely scary to me! So yeah to sum up, while I liked the plot and writing and such aspects of the book, wrong representation is DEFINITELY NOT OKAY! I’m proud of all those who speak up about problematic representation in books <3

    • Yeah, I know what you mean, sometimes super flowery and over the top writing can be really fun to read!

      You know, I’ve totally had the same thing happen: I’ll read a book and enjoy it, and then months later a discussion will make its way onto my feed that really makes me question what I thought of the book and whether there were issues with representation, etc. I think you’re right Uma: I don’t get the impression that he meant to hurt anyone, but I’m pretty disappointed that he didn’t just accept the mistake on his side as you said.

      Oh man, the idea of actually DMing or @ing an author on twitter and telling them that I think their book is problematic is also pretty scary for me too! Personally, those are conversations that I prefer to have with other blogger friends rather than the author themselves, because it feels like a safer space to ask questions and mull things over, you know? Me too! The people out there doing the heavy lifting re: problematic representation in books deserve some mad respect!

  • As someone who read and really enjoyed it, I completely respect how people can feel misrepresented. It is definitely disappointing seeing that his response was very lack luster. I don’t read a lot of fantasy so I didn’t mind the missing elements of it. I feel like i give too many passes in sci-fi and fantasy about representation, but he def should address the issues open and honestly. Now I’m going have to reconsider whether I should continue the series. P.S. you switched up the look of the blog some and I really like it!!

    • You’ve phrased it perfectly I think: it’s disappointing that his response was lack lustre. He doesn’t have to agree with everyone and obviously he’s entitled to his own opinion, but when your readers are telling you that they were upset by the representation of their culture in your story, then it’s time to apologize and agree to do better.

      Ahhh, thanks so much Tori! I’m pretty pleased with the new look too. 😊

  • I actually own Stormdancer but have not yet read it – think I’ll start with it before deciding whether to try this one. The purple prose has me worried! I was laughing at your point that these teenage assasins actually do some assassining unlike others of its ilk (side-eyeing hugely popular Sara J. Maas series I can’t remember the name of). It is much more interesting to me to see how an author can create a sympathetic character who kills people for money – who actually is in some ways a bad person.

    Thanks for the warning about representation issues!

    • I liked Stormdancer a lot more than Nevernight, but as people have commented below, there are some issues with representation in that one too (although I didn’t catch on to them when I first read it). Soooo…be forewarned, I guess. Haha.

      LOL yes, I was totally side-eyeing the Throne of Glass books! Basically all the characters in this book were kind of bad people, at least technically, which made for interesting reading. Apparently Brent Weeks’ Night Angel series is another good example of assassins who actually assassinate, so definitely check that out if you’re interested!

  • Greg Hill

    “Lady of Blessed Murder”- love that! And assassin school- always a win! I’ve heard a lot about this and like you said some controvery as well. Thanks for mentioning it- I didn’t know about the representation issue… the purple prose and the excessive (?) use of footnotes is something I’ve seen mentioned and that gave me pause. I feel like I have a better feel for the book now, thanks for the review!

    And you’re right about assassins- if you’re going to be an assassin get on with the assassinating lol!

    • I think my favourite part of this whole book was all the really cool names for things — like the school where assassins train is called the Red Church! No problem Greg, I think it’s good to know about those kinds of issues before reading so that people who would be more directly impacted by misrepresentation can choose to skip it if they want to, you know?

      Exactly! Kill some people, already! Hahahaha.

  • I was excited aboout this book and then I read about this and his problematic reactions to concerns. SIGHS. Probably not going to get around to it, I think.

    • Yeah…I know exactly how you feel. There are just too many great books out there and not enough time to spend reading ones that have so many issues (at least in my opinion).

  • Urgh…. Not sure what to think about this controversy but I still really want to give Nevernight a try… I find I’m a pretty forgiving reader most of the time and this one does sound like I’ll love it… Assassins, ancient roman inspiration, humour! I’ve heard a lot about the ‘purple prose’ and I hope that doesn’t turn me off… But I’m still willing to try.

    Thanks for the enlightening and as always, honest and thorough review!!