If you're thumbing through reviews you will quickly notice there are a lot of ones and fives, and for once I completely understand why people are falling so far in one direction or the other. The language in this book is highly stylized. The metaphors and similes are abundant and florid, and the prose can feel downright purple at times. It's told in the style of a particularly loquacious bard sitting down down in a tavern over a third bottle of wine. There are abundant footnotes, which are usually world-building details or snarky asides, which continually remind you there is a narrator weaving the tale. All of this might have been a huge turn-off for me had I not known it was a very deliberate stylistic choice - I've read other books by Kristoff and this one has a very different authorial voice. Now, whether this type of prose will amuse you, or make you want to bang your head against a wall, well, that's a matter of personal taste - hence lots of one and five star reviews.
Over the years I've developed a bit of fatigue when it comes to reading fantasy novels. There are a lot of tropes I'm simply tired of, so it takes a special sort of fantasy book to pull me in and hold my attention, especially for 400+ pages. What constitutes as "special" can vary, and in this case it was how well realized the world and characters felt. The world was simultaneously familiar enough I didn't feel utterly lost (I really dislike swimming through endless jargon and dense world-building), while also being distinctly alien and new. The city of Godsgrave, built upon the bones of a fallen....something, was intriguing, as was the Red Church. The ever present suns, monsters, and monoliths of bone all had my imagination spinning. The magics explored, especially blood and shadow, were also interesting and took some old ideas and spun them in new ways.
And let us not forget the characters. They were drawn deftly enough they felt real to me, and I can tell I will remember them long after setting down the story (which is rarely the case for me anymore - I think I've read too many books to retain the details these days). The main characters were fleshed out and well drawn, and the side characters were either likable or intriguing. In a book full of murderers I certainly did care for these people more than their morality might have warranted. I hope to see some of them (the ones that survived that is) in future books.
The plot was fast and fun, and the bulk of the book reminded me of Evil Hogwarts. What if you took a bunch of murderers and put them in a magical assassination academy? Potions class is certainly more lethal. Test day can be flat out murderous. And the competition is deadly. Coming out as top of your class for graduation takes on a special edge when it is literally kill or be killed.
All things told I was charmed by this book and throughly entertained. Once I got used to the prose I enjoyed it quite a bit. There were several turns in the story that took me by surprise, a world and characters I'm excited to revisit, and though it is the first in a trilogy it stood on its own and had a satisfying conclusion (such as it is). I look forward to reading the rest of this series, as well as more of Kristoff's work in the future.