Gravemaidens by Kelly Coon
Published by Delacorte Press on October 29, 2019
Series: Gravemaidens #1
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult
Length: 416 pages Source: NetGalley
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In the walled city-state of Alu, Kammani wants nothing more than to become the accomplished healer her father used to be before her family was cast out of their privileged life in shame.
When Alu's ruler falls deathly ill, Kammani’s beautiful little sister, Nanaea, is chosen as one of three sacred maidens to join him in the afterlife. It’s an honor. A tradition. And Nanaea believes it is her chance to live an even grander life than the one that was stolen from her.
But Kammani sees the selection for what it really is—a death sentence.
Desperate to save her sister, Kammani schemes her way into the palace to heal the ruler. There she discovers more danger lurking in the sand-stone corridors than she could have ever imagined and that her own life—and heart—are at stake. But Kammani will stop at nothing to dig up the palace’s buried secrets even if it means sacrificing everything…including herself.
Disclaimer: I received this book for free from NetGalley and Delacorte Press in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
While I appreciate a few of the unique and creative ideas in Gravemaidens, there are a few things that made me pause. At its bare bones, this is an interesting book with characters that could be loved. But it doesn’t quite get to that raving fan point. Gravemaidens is a forgettable book, and honestly? I’m disappointed.
In a rare event for me, I let myself wait a day to write this review. Usually, I’m scheduling these reviews within hours of finishing. Gravemaidens required some additional thought, because I needed to find the right words to express the weird feeling I had about it. What I’ve come up with is this: I don’t think Kelly Coon was the right person to write this book. Perhaps it’s just because this is her debut, but as a fantasy and the first book in a series? It left me wanting. Her world building in particular lay flat. There were a few sideways mentions of cultural things and the legend of the Boatman and the Sacred Maidens… which in itself, honestly, was not that well described. She left a little too much to the reader’s inference, and as such, failed to enchant.
There was too much emphasis on dialogue and too little on scene building. This style works better in contemporary – where the reader doesn’t need an introduction to the culture so much as a taste of it. In fantasy or historical fiction (where, like Sky in the Deep, this sits) it means the reader is forced to accept a lot of things, and it’s extraordinarily difficult to relate to the characters. Gravemaidens is set in (or at least inspired by) ancient Sumer. While I don’t know very much about this particular period in history, I do know that there was more that could have been done to bring it to life, even if it required a bit more creative license on the part of the author. This is such a cool era to be working in, because I honestly don’t think I’ve even heard of another book set in this period. I wanted more immersion, and definitely didn’t get it.
And then there’s Kammani. While I appreciate the dissenter perspective, when it comes to the tale of the Sacred Maidens, it was basically Kammani vs. the world and she was the only one who seemed to believe that the rites of passage meant dying. This bothered me a lot – not because she was the only dissenter – but because of the way she harped on it, told everyone, and everyone shrugged her off like a child. The fact that everyone seemed to be so okay with her spouting what was a cross between conspiracy theory and blasphemy to these people seemed a bit off for me. Kammani tends to obsess over ideas, repeating herself to no avail until magically everyone is on her side. This made the plot progression feel really jumpy as well. I sort of felt like nothing Kammani did in this book actually mattered. Even though she ran into pitfalls, they all seemed to happen just because she existed, not as a direct consequence to her actions.
There were a few things I liked. As I said, drawing inspiration from ancient Sumer was a magnificent idea, and I really would have liked to see more of that. The whole idea of the Sacred Maidens, as well, was really interesting. There are a lot of historical cultures who sacrificed family, servants, and animals to join a prominent member of society on (usually) his journey through the Underworld, and it’s something I had never seen explored in YA. There was also a perfectly chilling moment in the climax scene that let the book slip from historical fiction to fantasy for a moment, and I thought it was really spooky and we’ll-done and if only the whole book could have been like that!
There’s a twist in the middle of the book, and I saw it coming from the first time the character was mentioned. It may just be because I read a lot, but I’ve come to expect that there are more layers to characters, so that the real Grumpy Person is not really the villain, but a distraction. And that nothing is as it appears to be. So it’s gotten to be a bit disappointing when, nope, everything is exactly how I expected it would be and there were no surprises. The whole plot seemed to shift about halfway through from healing the lugal to figuring out who was plotting. Again, it was like Kammani wanted to talk about it rather than act. She was incredibly biased with no actual reason to be so. And the switch in plot was so clunky, coming out in conversation that was supposed to be a big reveal but was, again, more of a “well yes of course that’s what’s going on” moment. And what baffled me the most was that all the characters blindly believed her. And that all of her plans went awry, but fortunately, there was always another character with a different, barely explained plan, that worked!
Anyways, these are just my opinions. I found it a generally weak example of writing and world building within the genre. I usually try to be a bit nicer with debuts, so I fully acknowledge that HEY! This is a debut, it’s going to be a little rough. I don’t think I’m going to be picking up the rest of the series because it’s not that it’s a poorly-written book… I just feel so much like it’s a mismatch. I know it’s unkind to box people in, but with the writing style we see in Gravemaidens, I just feel like Kelly Coon would be better suited to contemporary where the world building and character creation is a bit less atmospheric (not dissing contemporary, which I’ve grown to like).
Please, also know that a couple authors I really like have already given this five stars and Goodreads and Gravemaidens is being generally really well received. I’m the odd person out on my opinions about this book, so if it’s something you’re interested in, you should still give it a try. Chances are you will vehemently disagree and love it!
What ancient cultures do you like to read about? I think there’s a lot of Greek and Roman-based stories out there, but I’d like to read more about Egypt! Sumer was a breath of fresh air, though, and now I kind of want to read about Babylon? Tell me your faves in the comments!