It’s time for you to switch it up, slow down, and read something unique. C.J. Merwild’s The Nichan Smile tells a haunting yet hopeful story of two young boys and the friendship they develop over many years and against the odds. It is beautiful and terrible and will definitely stand out among your TBR, though it might require you to give it a little time to show you its wonders.
The gods are gone and the world suffers for it. The skies have darkened and color has leached away as black acid rain falls from the sky. Yet humans and nichans, a powerful species that can semi-transform into a beast form, have found a way to survive. As three young nichans travel through the destroyed land, they stumble upon a human boy being tortured at the hands of two men. Domino, the youngest of the nichans, interferes, and the brothers are forced into action to save the human’s life. Due to Domino’s protestations, the older brothers are unable to leave the human boy to fend for himself, and now the nichan trio must continue their trek in the company of a scared child who is seeing the world for the first time. Yet the difficult journey ahead only cements Domino’s resolve to protect his new friend, and so begins a tale of two outsiders looking for a slice of happiness in a dying world.
The Nichan Smile is a slow burn. The story definitely has intense moments and some action, but it felt more like a steady flame than an exciting explosion. The plot develops very slowly, and it’s hard to get into the world initially. The first two parts of the book are especially a slog because we’re following Domino in his younger years. The world is set up through the eyes of a six-year-old nichan, and his youthful perspective is hard to engage with. As the book progresses, the story skips ahead and follows an older Domino and his life gets more interesting and complicated at that point. It’s a slow setup, but an important one because it creates a lot of depth and meaning in Domino’s relationship with the human boy. Overall I enjoyed it, but it’s definitely a commitment to get through.
While it was a little difficult to read Domino’s younger POV, it was also an effective way to reveal the world to the reader. Because Domino is only 6, his older brothers must guide him in everything, and we also experience pivotal nichan milestones through them. We eventually become immersed in the nichan culture as the story keeps its focus on Domino’s insular world. We learn so much about their way of life and how it has changed since the gods left. Understanding the nichan’s existence is important to the plot because it creates a lot of tension between Domino and his leader. Without the gods and the constant threat from a religious cult, the nichans struggle to hold on to old ways and adapt to a new world that seems bent on eradicating them.
One of the hardest and most memorable parts of this book is the human boy’s POV. His childhood is disturbing and his older years are filled with upsetting and traumatic events. He is a beautiful character, but the cruel hand life has dealt him is hard to stomach. Domino has his fair share of setbacks, but he is a nichan growing up among his people. The human remains an outsider for the entirety of the book, and I despaired watching him create a small life for the sake of survival. The human is definitely a banked ember compared to Domino’s sparkling personality, but I loved his development and think he is going to steal the show in book two.
The Nichan Smile is one of the most unique reads I’ve had in a while. I don’t think it will capture everyone’s interest because of its slow pacing, and it requires a dedicated effort up front to get immersed into the world. If you’re patient and willing to give it a try, you will discover a beautiful friendship that blossoms in an ugly and cruel world.
Rating: The Nichan Smile – 7.5/10