Every so often, I read a book that makes me lie awake at night, a book so deeply embedded in my psyche that including it in a #TBRMocaw list is not doing it enough justice. Today, and possibly every day until I crack open THE IKESSAR FALCON, that book is THE UNWILLING by Kelly Braffet, an ARC that a friend obtained for me before the book’s release, but due to (gestures at the world), is one I didn’t receive and couldn’t read for quite some time. Please know I am already considering buying the published version, both because I want to support it with money, and because it will have MAPS.
I barely know where to begin, so let me lay out the content warnings for this book. I may touch on these in this blog post, alongside spoilers, so please, go back now if these are triggering or upsetting for you:
- Prolonged emotional and physical abuse, including of children
- Descriptive torture, murder, and other types of physical violence
- Implied sexual assault, including CSA
- Alcoholism, drug addiction
Do know that all these are thoroughly condemned by the story and are not treated lightly or used for shock value. It is a dark story, even for an adult fantasy, and people should go in prepared.
And now, onto my review.
Oh, how the magic in this world fascinates me! We are given just enough to understand, but not so much it feels contained or rigid. There’s a wildness to it, a feeling that something is locked away from us as readers and from the characters themselves. I can’t lie, I still don’t understand What the Tower does, exactly, but I am eager to learn.
I’m always drawn to magic related to blood and sigils, so each character having an individual Sign which others use to contact them…now that is what I’m here for. I adore the conversation Judah has with Nate’s mother this way, and how the mother is aware enough of her own strength to accept how sick she’ll be afterwards. Such a personal thing! How the magic reacts differently and feels differently for each! Ugh, this is some inspiration and goals right here.
Another element I like is how the magic contrasts with medicine. Often in fantasy, magic is used for healing, but in this case Nate’s magic is for manipulation and control (of him, by him, around him), whereas his knowledge and practice of medicine ground him in humanity. I delight in how the herbs and lore from his culture are used to help the lower classes of the city. I love his scathing judgements of his mentor, and I love how this aspect of both him and the magic get used to show his involuntary changes in personality. I want to see if these two elements get combined in the next story.
I would 100% die for Judah and Ellie. Neither of them would want me to, but damn, those are some GOOD characters right there. (Context? You want context in your review?? Judah is the main protagonist, Ellie is the next most-major female character, her friend and confidant). Don’t get me wrong, I also love Nate and Theron (context, blah blah, Nate is a healer pretending to fit in, Theron is the second royal son), and I suppose I like the royal asshole-ness that is Gavin (heir), but without Judah there would be no story, and without Ellie there would be no hope, for either the book or the characters.
How rare is it, to see two women, tangled together in a world of politics and abuse, that genuinely love and care for each other? That look out for each other? They literally notice the fact they are supposed to be pitted against each other and choose to love. And…there is just so much love throughout the novel. These characters are hurt, deeply, constantly, including by each other, but they find ways to feel and love all the same. Ellie and the boys both look after Judah, knowing she’s been sexually assaulted in the past. Ellie also refuses to shy away from Judah’s injuries, and fights for her in her own small ways. I love her.
The four Children (as they’re known, despite being adults from the onset of the novel), play off each other so well. Judah and Gavin are two powerful forces of personality, who encompass rebellion and duty in the same breath, but in vastly different ways. Theron and Ellie are background schemers and movers who are thoroughly underestimated because of their appearances and, in Theron’s case, his illnesses and disabilities. And there’s so many, many more characters to mention, but I don’t want to write a trillion words, so I will focus next on the reason I wanted to write a spoiler-containing review: the villains.
THE UNWILLING manages to set its villains up like a video game, in that “the bad guy was actually working for a worse, more evil person this whole time” way. Elban is horrifically evil, abusing the four in numerous ways (not to mention others), even trying to have his own son kill his other son. For half the book he seems like the only possible endgame villain to defeat…which is why his death makes the book so much more fascinating. We see the Senschal rise to life, from a cruel side character to an overt schemer. He comes with a healthy dose of that oh-so often craved “I was doing the right thing” justification that makes for a perfect contrast to Elban’s “just straight up evil”-ness.
Somehow, Braffet is not done. The second main plot surrounding Nate and his magic has its own looming villain: the mastermind Derie. By the end of the book, I swear I wanted to kill her myself. She’s so much harder to see for what she really is because she literally erases the evidence in Nate’s mind, and he’s the POV character. It’s genius storytelling, since the further we move through the story, the more we as readers know something is wrong because we can see and remember what he can’t. This kind of pervasive horror only comes from seeing the spikes in the pit and being unable to warn the man about to fall in. Even writing this, new ways Derie changed him spring to my mind, and I can tell my first reread is going to be piecing this one together all over again. Again, I cannot overstate the sheer talent it takes to write a POV character change dramatically like Nate does, without the character themself being able to see it. Ugh. Chef’s kiss.
If you want a story unafraid to show darkness that understands what darkness is, I would fully recommend this book. Clever magic, good worldbuilding, a huge sprawling cast that’s unforgettable. The mysteries are fun, and the writing drives you forwards, and I believe I read the latter half of the novel in about two sittings because I could not stop.
I would also note that it is currently a standalone with the high possibility of a sequel, so if it seems like something you’d enjoy, please support it so I can get answers to the burning questions I’m left with after that ending. I mean, I hope you burn with them too, but I want to be very open about the fact that I’m in love with this novel, and quite frankly, you should do me this solid. When more comes, I will be waiting. And willing.