All aboard for an early contender for 2024’s best fantasy
For a thousand years, Concordia has maintained peace between its provinces. To mark this incredible feat, the emperor’s ship embarks upon a twelve-day voyage to the sacred Goddess’s Mountain.
Aboard are the heirs of the twelve provinces of Concordia, each graced with a unique and secret magical ability known as a Blessing.
Except one: Ganymedes Piscero – class clown, slacker, and all-round disappointment.
When a beloved heir is murdered, everyone is a suspect. Stuck at sea and surrounded by powerful people without a Blessing to protect him, odds of survival are slim.
But as the bodies pile higher, Ganymedes must become the hero he was not born to be. Can he unmask the killer and their blessing before this bloody crusade reaches the shores of Concordia?
Or will the empire as he knows it fall?
What can I say? I was obsessed with this book. When I wasn’t trying to feverishly guess the murder in this most exalted of sub-genres – a fantasy murder mystery – I was being emotionally battered by some of the most honest, perceptive and real character work I’ve come across in any genre.
Honestly? It is ridiculous that this book is a debut, because on three key areas – worldbuilding, (murder) plot and honest, deeply moving character work – White knocks this out of the park so hard they’ll still be searching for the ball when we colonise Mars.
Let’s start with the worldbuilding. The premise of this book is fiendishly simple – twelve magically powered (and rarely straight) people on a boat are killed one by one – or as White herself puts it, “a magical gay mystery cruise”. But the world around that is – or at least it should be – monstrously complicated. The Empire of Concordia is split into twelve provinces, each named after an animal (Dragon, Tiger, Bear, you probably don’t need me to keep naming animals). The leaders of these provinces have “blessings”, i.e. magical powers that can be anything and that they pass onto their children. The provinces all have very different climates – desert, arctic, jungle etc. – and also different political power dynamics (to cut a long story short, half are weak, the other half are dicks). The young leaders on the boat – all headed to a mountain where the most powerful leader, the Dragon, will receive her own ultimate blessing – all have different personalities and endless secrets.
Basically, the amount of information here is staggering, but the first 15% of this book is a textbook study on how to get across SO MUCH worldbuilding in a way that doesn’t feel complicated or excessive. By a quarter of the way in I could easily tell you about each and every province and that is more impressive an achievement than however the hell the pyramids were built.
Then there’s the main character whose eyes we see the whole story through, Ganymedes, better known as Dee. Oh man, Dee. Not content with giving us one of fantasy’s great murder mysteries, White offers up one of fantasy’s great protagonists. Dee is an utterly hilarious but also heart-breaking whirlwind; if you don’t get a little water in your eyes, I don’t believe you. Dee hails from one of the weaker Southern provinces, Fish province, who are considered weak, poor scum by most of the arrogant Northern provinces. But Dee is unwilling to bend to these bullies, and makes an alliance of the weaker provinces to find out who is killing their way to power. He is a chaotic detective who it is impossible not to root for.
On a political level, White uses this story to show how the strong bully the weak, and this offers some meaty colonial themes for our own world. But this is not the simple analogy you might think; even the bullies turn out to have their own heart-breaking origins; even the strong turn out to have been tragically forged by their own weakness; twisted by their own pain into being a villain.
But on a personal level, Dee is a marvel too. He has a secret that is destroying him, and this is a book partly about how hiding your real identity can grind you down. Given that Dee is Bi, and a majority of the book’s characters are at least one of the letters in LGBT, this obviously has real relevance for those communities, but it also offers a textbook case for anyone on how the seemingly confident can lack self-esteem, and how you can be weakened by the secrets that mistakenly shame you.
White wields this powerful lesson like a scalpel; 70% of Dee is hilarious, larger than life chaotic – half of his proclamations had me shrieking with laughter – but the other 30% is heart breaking, and more so for how quickly it follows the humour. Humour and personal grief are difficult to meld well in writing. For White, it is seamless. There is also a great (gay) romance for the ages entwined among all the satisfying murder – never has the message about the power of someone seeing you for who you are been so keenly felt. This book will break you a thousand times and mend you all over again.
Finally, there is the murder mystery itself. To do a fantasy murder mystery that works is a challenge akin to threading the eye of a needle in the middle of an earthquake. Fantasy readers expect worldbuilding and character arcs as well as the complex, clockwork plot that murder mystery fans expect. Yet White has achieved maybe the best example of this cross-genre I’ve ever seen. I approached these murders like a man obsessed; I was so confident I’d guessed the twist, and I was so wrong, so utterly, utterly wrong. Speaking as someone who is currently writing their second fantasy murder mystery, I genuinely do not know how she did this. She must have given over most of her abode to post-it notes and paper string, either that or she’s a genius. At this point, I’m tending towards the latter.
You have one task in January. Read this book. It may well turn out to be 2024’s landmark fantasy.