A young healer stumbles upon a plot to overthrow the king, and her own family is now in the path to be the next sacrifice.
Author: Kelly Coon
What They Say
In the walled city-state of Alu, Kammani wants nothing more than to become the accomplished healer her father used to be before her family was cast out of their privileged life in shame.
When Alu’s ruler falls deathly ill, Kammani’s beautiful little sister, Nanaea, is chosen as one of three sacred maidens to join him in the afterlife. It’s an honor. A tradition. And Nanaea believes it is her chance to live an even grander life than the one that was stolen from her.
But Kammani sees the selection for what it really is—a death sentence.
Desperate to save her sister, Kammani schemes her way into the palace to heal the ruler. There she discovers more danger lurking in the sand-stone corridors than she could have ever imagined and that her own life—and heart—are at stake. But Kammani will stop at nothing to dig up the palace’s buried secrets even if it means sacrificing everything…including herself.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers):
Author Kelly Coon makes her young-adult authorial debut with this story of a girl who is forced to take on too much responsibility or risk losing everyone she ever cared about.
As someone who enjoys reading historical fiction, and has dabbled in writing it in the past, I know there is a danger in this particular form of time travel. You can go full historian and attempt to adhere as strictly as possible to the culture, time, and place you’re evoking as possible. Or, you separate your fiction from reality by setting it in a place inspired by the past as discarding all unnecessary trappings and inconvenient realities of that time period in service to your story. Gravemaidens falls in the latter category.
By telling the story in first-person it removes the need for a greater explanation of the setting and culture it takes place in. The lead doesn’t stop to ponder the only surroundings she has ever known. What does her city look like? What do the people look like? Does the author know what her ancient Mesopotamian inspired world looks like? I can’t say, because the ancient history lover in me wonders what year it is and gets hung up on why they have currency, how the poor can afford horses, why a people who would be reliant on a river barely mention it. The setting isn’t the focus, the lead is the sole focus.
Which comes to the second problem of this novel. Kammani is a frustrating lead. She is, as we come to believe, perhaps the only one in the city who has a problem with the concept of gravemaidens even before her own sister is chosen. Human sacrifices following royalty to the grave aren’t unheard of. It’s a practice that doesn’t appear to last all that long in most cultures, not without a strong socio-political and religious reason. (It was also a custom not practiced in ancient Mesopotamia because they didn’t believe in that sort of afterlife, but I digress.) We come to understand that Kammani doesn’t believe the same way as others because she’s a healer and has seen the worst of death.
Coon’s blurb says she enjoys writing strong women characters but Kammani doesn’t strike me as anything but the typical teen lead. (Nevermind the fact that in her society she absolutely would have been seen as an adult woman.) Her friend is a perky, outspoken girl who gets away with too much and the sister she tries desperately to save is hopelessly idiotic. Kammani, for all her knowledge about medicine, is a fool. She quickly realizes that someone is poisoning the king but doesn’t make the obvious connection to who the likely culprit is.
A ridiculous amount of time is spent on Kammani thinking about her childhood friend and love interest Dagan. He is lingered over nearly as much as beer is in the story (which is never called beer, probably for publisher optics despite the fact beer was historically safer to drink than water.) There is another, far more interesting male in Kammani’s life, that of Nasu the guard. Where any other story this would have resulted in an expected love triangle or perhaps changing of interests from one man to another, Nasu ends up just sort of existing there as a confidant. We’re never given a hint of attraction between the two, and while that sort of male/female friendship is rare and welcome in fiction, there’s no warmth there. By the end of the novel, it’s more of a distrust despite the firm actions taken by both.
I wish that Coon had taken more risks and gone further down the route of intrigue and plotting. I wish that more time had been spent on world-building and less on quarreling sisters. When your characters spend so much time fighting against each other and not against the obvious antagonist, it becomes hard to root for them.
This volume ends without justice for the wronged and with the heroes heroically fleeing for their lives. A second volume is planned, but I have to wonder where the story would go from here. And that isn’t the wonder of an eager reader, but a wary one.
Gravemaiden’s takes a great premise in an underutilized setting rich with history and chooses to tell a very narrow mystery inside of it. Kammani isn’t a particularly strong lead, and like much YA literature, this novel uses first-person as a crutch. What should have been a harrowing tale of survival and intrigue is spent instead pondering if the lead would fall for her childhood friend romantically, even while her life and the lives of everyone in her family are at stake. This is a story whose priorities were split, wherein trying to make the life of a girl thousands of years ago relatable to modern readers instead tosses history by the wayside. Maybe the eventual follow-up novel will see the characters grow and change in positive ways, or maybe they’ll continue to narrowly avoid death by their own foolishness.
Content Grade: C
Age Rating: Young Adult
Released By: Delacorte Press
Release Date: October 29, 2019
MSRP: $18.99 US