Mia Corvere is only ten years old when she is given her first lesson in death. Destined to destroy empires, the child raised in shadows made a promise on the day she lost everything: to avenge herself on those that shattered her world. But the chance to strike against such powerful enemies will be fleeting, and Mia must become a weapon without equal. Before she seeks vengeance, she must seek training among the infamous assassins of the Red Church of Itreya. Inside the church’s halls, Mia must prove herself against the deadliest of opponents and survive the tutelage of murderers, liars and daemons at the heart of a murder cult. The church is no ordinary school. But Mia is no ordinary student.
Nevernight by Jay Christoff is a gripping tale let down by racist undertones. The story, in theory, has a lot going for it. It has an appealing heroine, Mia, hell bent on revenge and dealing with some severe trauma from one event we know (the hanging of her father) and one that remains shrouded in mystery (whenever Mia’s mind starts to go there she tells herself don’t look). She’s darkin, which means she has some magical powers that involve being able to control shadows, though she mostly doesn’t know what she’s capable of unless she is pushed to find out. To be darkin is very rare, so there isn’t another one about she can ask. She is forever accompanied by her shadow cat (literally a cat made of shadows), Mister Kindly, who appeared to her the night her powers first manifested (the day her father was hanged for treason and her mother and baby brother imprisoned and Mia herself almost murdered.) and feeds off Mia’s fear. Since she is dealing with not a little trauma, Mister Kindly is very well fed. Oh yeah, and he talks. With sass. They are together attending a boarding school where teenagers learn to be assassins.
Kristoff’s method of storytelling appealed to me. He uses a third person omniscient narrator who becomes one of the biggest personalities in the story. Through a mixture of footnotes and asides the narrator keeps the tone light in even its darkest moments –disappearing in its most violent, which was particularly effective – using humour and satire to inform the reader of all of the grimmest aspects of the world we have, however temporarily, stepped into. The narrator was kind of like the villain in a Shakespeare play, nodding and winking at the audience as the others flail about none the wiser.
But it was the narrator, as one of my favourite parts of the novel that came to be the biggest let down. As a voice on the outside of the story, analysing it and at times mocking those it describes, it was perfectly placed to challenge the problematic ideas posed by Kristoff’s characters.
But it never did.`
The problem was with the representation of the Dweymeri people, who are described as ‘dark of skin’. And also as violent rapists.
We mainly hear about the Dweymeri through the character of Tric, who is mixed race, with a Dweymeri mother and Itreyan (white) father, and because of this, rejected and abused by the Dweymeri people (strike one). With the exception only a few, including Tric and another student of the Assassin School he and Mia attend, Floodcaller, who is a violent asshole and then a dead one (who hates Tric for being mixed race), the Dweymeri people are barely represented in the novel at all (strike two), so when we’re told early on that they are rapists and murderers (strike three and we’re out) there is really no basis on which to challenge that idea. Even more so given that the only positive representation we get of the Dweymeri people is through Tric who we learn was not brought up in that community. This style of storytelling leans heavily on the trope of the dark skinned aggressor, and it stings particularly in a book about ruthless murderers to single out one group for being ruthless murderers.
Kristoff does make some efforts to challenge his own use of stereotype. There is a scene early on where someone calls Tric koffi, which it comes to light means ‘child of rape’. Mia’s immediate assumption is that Tric’s mother must have been raped by a Dweymeri man, but Tric quickly corrects her that it was in fact an Itreyan man who assaulted his Dweymeri mother. Obviously this is a step forward, but Mia’s mistake isn’t analysed, she isn’t ashamed of it and the wider context and social and racial politics of her remarks were never discussed at all. Given that the characters of Mister Kindly and the narrator (who I have a theory may be one and the same) in particular were so astute in their summaries of other situations in the novel, it felt wrong to me that on this they were silent.
I also felt like Kristoff had a tendency to exoticise people of colour in the book. Mostly because, with the exception of Mia, he would largely only ever describe a person’s skin colour if they were black or brown – never white. For example when we’re introduced to Spiderkiller (another ruthless, murdering Dweymeri), the potions teacher at the Assassin’s Hogwarts, she is described like this: “Her saltlocks were intricate. Immaculate. Her skin was the dark, polished walnut of the Dweymeri..” where as one of Mia’s best friends is simply called “brunette.” Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not upset that Kristoff neglected to describe white skin as such, but I felt like this practise served to other people of colour, and as I said, exoticise. To not describe someone as white in this scenario, felt like the reader was supposed to assume they were, which creates a situation in which whiteness is necessarily considered the norm, and anything else other. So. Freaking. Problematic.
I would like to think that as the series progresses, Kristoff will break down the stereotypes he has introduced in the first novel and reveal them for the ignorance they truly are. But, seeing as by the end of the novel we are down yet another Dweymeri, I sort of doubt it.