Books

Saint Death’s Daughter (C.S.E. Cooney) – Book Review

Saint Death’s Daughter tells the story of Miscellaneous ‘Laine’ Stones, a member of the Stones family, a group of people who have strange powers that allow them to tap into magic. Laine is a necromancer, the only one to be born into her family for generations, and thanks to being allergic to all forms of violence has had to live a life sheltered away in her huge family home in order to keep herself alive. But when her father, the royal executioner, and her mother, the royal assassin, both die in quick order she finds her life being thrown upside down.

Laine has to call her older, twisted sister, Animita ‘Nita’ Muscaria Stones, back from her studies abroad to help at the family home when it is revealed that her family was in a great deal of debt. With that debt now fallen onto the two surviving Stones women they have to come up with a way of saving their family home, or risk losing the lives that they’ve become accustomed to. However, when more deaths begin to happen it becomes apparent that there’s more going on than first appeared.

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I really wanted to like Saint Death’s Daughter. The blurb sounded really interesting, the set-up sounded fun. It seemed to be the kind of dark fantasy story that I normally enjoy. But thanks to the writing it jjust felt incredibly inaccessible, off-putting, and hard to follow.

One of the biggest issues with the book is that the author begins by giving the reader a huge info dump. We get seven new days, twelve new months, and a dozen gods and their domains to learn before we’ve even begun the story. This kind of thing, putting huge lists of new names and places at the start of fantasy stories before you’ve even met a single character, has always been something that I’ve found off-putting. I understand that sometimes books throw a lot at you, and that it can help to have a guide to use to remind you of stuff as you go along, but whenever I see pages like this at the start of the book it makes me feel like I’m about to start reading a text book, rather than a story.

Once the story began, this feeling really only intensified. Despite being given a huge info dump right at the start I found myself getting pretty lost very early on, with large sections of the prologue and opening chapters making little sense. The biggest problem was that not only do the characters drop names and phrases that we have no context for at this point, but their regular speech comes across like they’ve swallowed a thesaurus too, so even the parts that you should be able to understand come across as confusing.

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I’m used to picking up books where there are strange character names, where we get given places we’ve never heard about, and other in-world words and phrases that you’ve got to learn; it’s a fairly standard part of fantasy. But whilst with most books I am able to learn as I go along, Saint Death’s Daughter never felt like that. Thanks to the way it is written and its over-use of flourishes and excessively odd text I was never able to just relax into the book and go along with it, picking it up as I went. I was drawn out of the story on almost every page as I was going back and rereading things to try and make sense of them.

Some of this confusion wasn’t helped with the constant asides and added information that the author would throw into scenes too. You’ll be reading about Laine and what she is doing in the moment and you’ll suddenly get several sentences telling you about a great-great aunt and her life and how she dies that doesn’t really add anything to the story, slows you down, and makes it harder to try and keep up with the plot. Most of the times these asides seem to be attempts at humour, to inject some kind of odd levity in the scene, yet thanks to them often feeling forced they never feel humorous at all.

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It feels like Cooney has written an entire world down for this book, that they’ve worked out how everything works, who everyone is and their families going back several generations. It does feel like a thought out and realised world, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were stacks of notebooks on the author’s desk. However, it also seems like they’ve tried to cram it all into this one book, to try to show off how well planned and deep their world is, without realising that it’s taking away from the enjoyment of the story. I’ve seen some reviews comparing the book to Pratchett, that it’s trying to emulate the sense of weirdness and whimsy of the Discworld books, and I definitely see that here; but rather than creating something slowly like Pratchett did, the author seems to want it all up front, dumping several books on us in one overlong and unfunny volume.

There are some good things about this book, it has some dark moments, some interesting characters, it has positive queer, polyamorous, and trans representation. It takes a great approach to normalising more marginalised folk. But it just seems like the author tried to be too big and clever and funny and failed on all accounts, resulting in a book that is an absolute slog to get through (the close to five hundred pages felt closer to a thousand), and something where I was relieved once it was over. I’m sure there’s an audience out there for this book, but I honestly couldn’t recommend it to folks.

Saint Death’s Daughter is out now from Rebellion Publishing.

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