If you took the godly and human affairs of Robert Jackson Bennett’s Divine Cities trilogy, paired them like a fine wine with the intricate and complex magical mechanics of Brandon Sanderson, and made the main course a Hannibal-esque murder mystery in a well-realized, complex city on the edge of a China Miéville-esque disaster, you would get The Helm of Midnight. The newest novel from author Marina Lotstetter is the first in her new Five Penalties series. Rich with lore and worldbuilding, Lotstetter lets her epic fantasy flag fly in this engrossing, engaging, and dark story of sisters, trauma, magic, and murder.
De-Krona Hirvath is a Regulator in the sprawling city of Lutador, sitting in a stretch of land protected on all sides by a magical barrier, erected by the five gods of Arkensyre in times long past to protect humanity from the torture of their parent, a being known as the Thalo. In Lutador, De-Krona works in a squad of Regulators with her sister, the captain De-Lia, as part of a team meant to provide security and management of the various enchantment magics and items throughout Lutador. For along with the barrier, the five gods gave gifts to humanity to safeguard them: the ability to manipulate emotion, time, even life itself, and enchant them into objects. These range from investing joy into small gems, so one experiences pleasantness all day, to extracting time from infants as a tax for the wealthy to one day use and extend their life. There is a system, and Krona and her team protect it.
But at the onset of the novel, at an evening meant to celebrate the capture of some of the deadliest enchantments in Lutador, two go missing out from under Krona, one of them being the death mask of the most famous serial killer in history, Louis Charbon. Somehow, someone managed to lift the murderer’s spirit from his body before he was executed for his crimes and put it within the mask. With the ghost of Charbon alive, it’s only a matter of time before his killing spree begins anew. Krona will have to stop the murderer, the plot that brought him back from the dead, and master her own fears if she’s to keep Lutador’s streets from running red.
From page one, Lotstetter has a lot she needs to accomplish: introduce a whole new world and pantheon (some of whom use non-binary or neo-pronouns, which I really enjoyed), then show off the magic of this world in ways that are seamless, intuitive, informative, and cool, and on top of it all, bring forward characters the reader can enjoy and use them to kickstart an intricate and complex plot of murder, motivation, and the magic from before, which will grow more nuanced as we go along. If this sounds like a lot, trust me, it is: Lotstetter had a full dance card before the music even started. But from the very first page, Lotstetter brings you smoothly into this new world of gods and investigators and death-masks, where the talents of the dead can be wrestled into use by the living. From Krona and her team, to Melanie, a young woman hoping to cure her ailing mother, to Louis Charbon himself, Lotstetter brings in new players and swivels the spotlight among them with nimble prose and rich detail, giving the reader just enough new information and mystery in each separate story thread to keep them pinned to the page. It is not an easy feat, and Lotstetter manages it seamlessly.
As detailed as the world is, the story wouldn’t work unless the characters were compelling, and in Krona, Melanie, and yes, even Louis Charbon, Lotstetter has created a cast of characters pushed to their limits, each fearing with the consequences of their failure. Krona has the pressure of her station weighing on her in multiple ways, all the while trying to keep her older sister safe and navigate a specific fear that has taken magical root in her body. Melanie, unpracticed in the magic of masks, ignites a series of events that will change things forever in Lutador and beyond, but who can only see her mother’s condition deteriorating before her eyes. And Louis Charbon has his own mission, and through his eyes, readers learn the bloody truth he was carving his way towards. Exploring each character’s arc would’ve been enough to make this book enticing, but that Lotstetter uses each thread to further the plot and explain/explore the mechanics of her world and magic system is genius and works beautifully.
If there are a few moments of the narrative where Lotstetter elects to be more straightforward, to tell the reader something directly about the world or the magic or a character, it never slows anything down, nor breaks any level of immersion. This is a world where details matter, and the ever-widening gyre that is the narrative; as readers move from a street-level understanding of the plot to seeing the threads converge in the realm of the gods, there’s no harm in a little direct information now and again. With more books to come in the series, Lotstetter leaves plenty of dangling bits of information, even as the events of this book come to a heart-pounding, heartbreaking conclusion.
As we learn the sins of Lutador and those that live within and outside the city, I’m eager to see where Lotstetter takes us in her exploration of power, authority, magic, and the fringe of the human heart, where any action can be excused if it is being done for the right reasons, and what might push a person to that shadowed land. The Helm of Midnight is an engaging, enthralling first installment in a world I wanted to keep reading about for ages more. If your epic fantasy tastes run in the same vein as your murder mysteries, this gem from Lotstetter is sure to make its way to the top of your TBR pile.
Martin Cahill is a writer living in Queens who works as the Marketing and Publicity Manager for Erewhon Books. He has fiction work forthcoming in 2021 at Serial Box, as well as Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Fireside Fiction. Martin has also written book reviews and essays for Book Riot, Strange Horizons, and the Barnes and Noble SF&F Blog. Follow him online at @mcflycahill90 and his new Substack newsletter, Weathervane, for thoughts on books, gaming, and other wonderfully nerdy whatnots.