The Helm of Midnight, by Marina J. Lostetter, is a book with a lot of ideas. The first entry in The Five Penalties series, I find myself at a loss as to whether to recommend it or not. On the one hand, Lostetter has built a world just brimming with interesting rules and magic. On the other hand, getting into that world felt akin to wading through concrete. While I ended up wanting to continue the series by the time I finished Helm, there were a ton of instances where I almost quit the book and relegated it to my DNF pile. Yet, through clever writing, compelling mystery, and plot lines that I just had to see come together, Helm managed to keep its grip on me to the last page.
The back of the book will tell you that Helm is a story about chasing a killer who has donned a mask of one of the world’s most infamous mass murderers in order to gain his powers of destruction. Once I got into the book and started digging around I found this preview to be laughably oversimplified. Helm is a world of rules. The first page you will read shows the dictates of the five gods who rule over reality and what they expect of you. Violating any of their decrees will result in a horrific penalty, which is where the series gets its name. Existence in the world of The Helm of Midnight is more malleable than our own. The magic of the world allows people to store abstract concepts and emotions in physical objects. For example, emotions like joy and despair can be imprisoned in gems and then worn to evoke the desired feeling. When a person dies, their skills and abilities can be captured in a death mask that allows a wearer to recall their abilities. Oh, and the entire world exists in a giant bubble dome that keeps out apocalyptic flora and fauna that would obliterate humanity in a heartbeat if it got in. The only thing the barrier doesn’t keep out are the vargs – which are sort of like werewolves with special abilities depending on their breed. Some can teleport, others can read your mind, others can turn invisible. Vargs represent the largest threat to the world as they can’t be killed, only reduced to a mist that is then captured in bottles and stored in vaults. All of this just scratches the surface of the minute detail and whimsically grim nature of Lostetter’s world, and on top of all of this we have an intricate plot.
The story is split into three POV’s in three different time periods. We have Krona in the present, a cop who is trying to track down a lost mask of a serial killer and stop whoever is wearing it from killing more people. We have Melanie in the near past, a young girl who is trying to save her mother by wearing the masks of healers. Finally, we have Charbon in the distant past, the aforementioned serial killer who is living his life as a successful doctor.
The three timelines act as set up, catalyst, and execution of the mystery of the book. In Charbon’s period, we see a talented and kind doctor trying to save everyone and we wonder how this man became the mass murderer we know him to have been in the present. In Melanie’s period, we see new elements and rules introduced that start to change how we perceive the world to work and open up new possibilities. In Krona’s period, we get to see the payoff of all of the setup, but mostly we get to see her talk to her CI about nothing for a whole lot of pages. Maybe I just don’t like cops, but I struggled to be invested in Krona’s story – which is a bummer because her POV is easily the one with the most page space. I felt like nothing ever happened in her segments, while with Charbon and Melanie I was constantly learning more about the mystery that permeates the story and about the world that it takes place in. All three plot lines eventually do all come together, and I felt the book picked up massively at this point. However, this nexus is deep within the story and I wouldn’t be surprised if people dropped out halfway through.
Part of the problem is that while Lostetter’s worldbuilding and themes are fantastic, the prose can feel lackluster. She excels at grim imagery and violence but somehow seems to struggle with imbuing her worlds with excitement and feeling. Many scenes were objectively horrifying in their nature but had little resonance with me as I struggled to empathize with multiple members of the cast. The characters are wonderfully complex with a ton of potential, but it can feel like a lot of that potential is left on the table thanks to the language.
The Helm of Midnight is certainly a unique read with a lot of new imaginative ideas. If you feel bored by the current sea of fantasy offerings and want something off the beaten path, this book will definitely scratch the itch. But, beware of the slow ramp-up speed. The series is definitely going somewhere, it just hasn’t quite gotten there yet. The first book provides an interesting blueprint, but I mostly see the potential of something to come instead of something concrete I can hold onto.
Rating: The Helm of Midnight – 7.0/10