The Helm of Midnight by Marina J. Lostetter was one of the most complicated and confusing books that I read in 2021. It was a strange murder mystery in a dystopian bubble world where people could summon the skills of the dead to empower them through masks. The book was so complicated that reading the recap in book two, The Cage of Dark Hours, was overwhelming to the point where I had to take a walk afterward. But, after a confusing and peculiar book one (that was worth reading in the end) Cage presents us with a much more straightforward adventure that starts to pull up the floorboards of book one and show us the innards of The Five Penalties series.
As I sit here writing this, struggling, I am trying to think of how to talk about the book without spoiling any of the juicy bits accidentally. Cage has shown me that this series is all about lies. Layer upon layer of misinformation, permeating a strange and magical world, where five universal laws (which have horrible penalties for breaking them) run everything. Book one is intentionally obtuse as hell to keep you guessing at everything that is happening around you. It reads like a surreal fever dream with a cinderblock of lore tied to its feet. In book two the cat is out of the bag so to speak and Cage breaks away from these trappings and starts to sprint full speed into something more closely resembling an adventure story.
Our protagonist from book one, Krona Hirvath, finds herself as one of the rare people who can see past the veil placed over her society into the mechanisms running underneath. This leaves her hunted by various people who want things to stay the way they are (I think; even in book two we have layers of misdirection). Cage is essentially Lostetter saying to her characters, “fine, you figured out what is happening. Now, what are you going to do about it.”
Despite being much more direct and much less confusing, I found Cage to be tonally very consistent with its previous novel. You still feel like you are walking through a spooky attic and running into web after web of intrigue. Every time you solve and lock down one element of the story, Lostetter just introduces a new one. The ability to don the mask of a dead person and gain their skills remains an extremely cool power system. I still wonder what you might gain if someone donned my death mask.
All in all my recommendation is this. I struggled with The Helm of Midnight a lot and still ended up liking it. So if you are in a similar boat and curious if you should press on know that I found The Cage of Dark Hours a much easier and relaxing read, but still retaining all the goodies that made book one intriguing. A remarkable improvement.
Rating: The Cage of Dark Hours – 8.0/10
An ARC of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The thoughts on this book are my own.