Death Magic, necromancy…often seen as dark and potentially evil methods of magic, but that’s not quite the case in Hannah Whitten’s Nightshade Crown saga, which launched with The Foxglove King. The novel focuses on Lore, an orphan who gets swept up into the political machinations because of her proclivity with Mortem, or death magic. Lore finds herself aligned with another practitioner of the dark arts and the crown prince in a story that has a mystery/heist like feel as they are charged with learning out whole villages are strangely dying.
When Lore was thirteen, she escaped a cult in the catacombs beneath the city of Dellaire. And in the ten years since, she’s lived by one rule: don’t let them find you. Easier said than done, when her death magic ties her to the city.
Mortem, the magic born from death, is a high-priced and illicit commodity in Dellaire, and Lore’s job running poisons keeps her in food, shelter, and relative security. But when a run goes wrong and Lore’s power is revealed, she’s taken by the Presque Mort, a group of warrior-monks sanctioned to use Mortem working for the Sainted King. Lore fully expects a pyre, but King August has a different plan. Entire villages on the outskirts of the country have been dying overnight, seemingly at random. Lore can either use her magic to find out what’s happening and who in the King’s court is responsible, or die.
Lore is thrust into the Sainted King’s glittering court, where no one can be believed and even fewer can be trusted. Guarded by Gabriel, a duke-turned-monk, and continually running up against Bastian, August’s ne’er-do-well heir, Lore tangles in politics, religion, and forbidden romance as she attempts to navigate a debauched and opulent society.
But the life she left behind in the catacombs is catching up with her. And even as Lore makes her way through the Sainted court above, they might be drawing closer than she thinks.
Lore is a poison runner living and working with her mothers in the city of Dellaire in the kingdom of Auverraine. Lore and her mothers are connected to Mortem, which is the death magic lingering in the city 500 years after an event called Godsfall, which is the death of the Goddess Nyxara. The Goddess is buried in the catacombs beneath the city. Lore’s connection to the Mortem has allowed her to raise the dead, which is what draws the attention of the monks known as the Presque Mort who are more or less sanctioned to channel Mortem. She is taken from the streets by the head of the Presque known as the Priest Exalted, who happens to be brother to the King. As mentioned, she and the one-eyed monk Gabriel are charged with discovering why these villages are dying. Where Lore’s abilities with Mortem come into play is that she asked (commanded) to raise dead villagers for some clues. Lore’s other command is to stay as close to Prince Bastian as possible, the next in line to the throne, because the King thinks Bastian may have a connection to the disappearances.
The Foxglove King covers a lot of bases, there are political elements; faith & belief; trust; Whitten touches on parental abandonment issues on a couple of potent levels; there’s a romance triangle between Lore, Gabriel, and Bastian; the plot follows something of a mystery thread, it has the feel of a city fantasy and almost urban fantasy even though set in a secondary world. She pulls these elements together masterfully for a unique story.
The characters are extremely well-drawn and what I appreciated the most about the construction of each of the three protagonists – Lore, Gabriel, Bastien – was Whitten’s doling out of the information about the characters. We only knew what we needed to know as the story progressed and the backstory of each character was revealed in layers as they became relevant to the plot. Hints along the way to each revelation were enough to plant seeds of belief with the new details.
The milieu in which the story takes place has enough details as well, there’s a mythology/religion that provides a strong foundation, but also seems to have more details yet to be revealed. I found a pleasant resonance between the world Whitten has created in The Foxglove King with the world Tad Williams revealed in The War of the Flowers as well the world of League of Legends as revealed in the Netflix show Arcana and the novel Ruination by Anthony Reynolds.
I was enthralled with this novel from beginning to end, Whitten’s characters came alive as real people with emotions, snark, and annoyances that real people posses. Whitten very impressively manages to hold the key elements of the novel in near perfect balance with each other – the characters, the plot, and the world/world-building. I want to discover more about this world beyond what Whitten has shown us, I want to see where Lore, Gabriel, and Bastien go next in their lives in this world.
© 2023 Rob H. Bedford