Saint Death’s Daughter
By C.S.E. Cooney
Solaris (Rebellion Publishing) — April 2022
ISBN: 9781786184702 — Hardcover — 480 pp.
Not every story with a young adult protagonist is a young adult story. Though marketed as an adult fantasy, Saint Death’s Daughter features a set-up that is easy for prospective readers to gloss over and make a wrong assumption regarding target audience.
Teenage Miscellaneous (Lanie) Stones has lost both her parents within a month, the latest in an ancient family line serving the Royalty of Liriat as Assassin and Executioner. With her sister Amanita (Nita) Muscaria Stones away studying magic in Quadiib for the past four years, Lanie is left to face the family’s debts and future as the sole living soul within Stones Manor. However, though destined to be the next great necromancer from the Stone family line, Lanie has suffered from birth with an intense allergy to bloodshed, and violence in general, that manifests as physical trauma to her own body. How can she possibly be a powerful and successful necromancer with this disability?
Complicating Lanie’s situation further, Sari Scratch, the matriarch of a rival family, and the Stones’ creditor, is pressuring Lanie for payment, or marriage to one of her sons. In this time of fearful uncertainty, Lanie has precious few for company or solace: the Stones’ long-dead and magically bound servant Goody Graves, and the ghost of Irradiant Stones (Grandpa Rad) the previous family necromancer whose spirit is now trapped in the lock of a sarcophagus in the family ossuary (and longs to be free, restored to corporeal power).
The first part of Saint Death’s Daughter builds from this coming-of-age setup that is familiar from young adult literature. But Cooney’s novel approaches those themes with a dark complexity that combines playfulness with moments of uncompromising brutality.
Lanie’s maturation becomes tied with her elder sister, who returns home upon receiving the news from Lanie. Nita resolves to take over the position of Royal Assassin for Liriat to earn money that can keep Scratch creditors at bay. She is soon tasked in this with taking out powerfully dangerous enemies of Liriat: the four-and-twenty membered Court of wizards serving the Blackbird Queen Bran Fiakhna. With her from Quadiib, Nita has brought a man she has magically Fascinated and bonded, who she calls Mak. Able to transform between man and falcon, Mak’s abilities are completely under control of Nita’s call and whim.
The plot quickly goes beyond the set up and young-adult-novel trappings with intricate developments that I wouldn’t want to spoil. After its first part the novel jumps ahead seven years, continuing focus on Lanie’s struggles to develop as a necromancer, but now also as aunt to her fiery niece Sacred Datura Stones, daughter of Nita and Mak.
I immediately became enraptured by the gothic tones, sophisticated language, and compelling characters of Saint Death’s Daughter. It’s a large novel; it could have been conceivably split into two separate publications, but I think it works well as the single epic work it is. Cooney drops readers right into the story and world of the Stoneses, with its unique vocabulary, naming conventions, and societal structure. It requires some reader patience and attention to detail, but Cooney does a great job at introducing the essential elements to her characters and their world in a logical way that never feels like info-dump for its own sake, and permits the thrill of discovery. A brief glossary before the novel on names for time and deities in the novel seems unnecessary as most of these are not major or essential details in the novel, and may needlessly dissuade some readers.
The language is on one hand ornate, yet with Lanie’s point of view also alternates formality and intricacy with blunt flippancy and wit. This parallels the rigid social stratifications and traditions of Lariat and Quadiib and the contrasting youthful yearning of characters (like Lanie and Datu) to forge their own new way of doing things.
There is a gothic eccentricity to Saint Death’s Daughter that many others have likened to The Addams Family, and I wouldn’t disagree. Even with its dark themes, moments of despair, and unflinching violence/trauma, the novel still manages to be humorous and endearing. This is in no small part to how well Cooney writes the characters and their relationships with one another. Family is all. This is something many (if not all) can relate to – even when family members/ancestors may be horrific, selfish, or damaging. The next generation always represents hope.
Cooney’s world building is excellent in this fantasy, though not without limitations that some readers might criticize. The magic systems are fleshed out well, particularly the necromancy of Lanie. Cooney slowly introduces others as the novel progresses, particularly during the action sequences, culminating in a fantastic battle scene. The other strength lies in the characters, compelling in both the protagonists and antagonists, with even sympathies for enemies to be felt. However, most all of these characters come from the upper rungs of societies, readers never really get a sense of what the ‘regular world’ is like, or the lives of the common population. This is surprising given how class distinctions seem significant to the societies. I’m hoping we’ll see more of that in future volumes of the story. The glossary also hints to a pantheon of deities and complexity that even this long novel really doesn’t explore too much.
Ultimately, what Saint Death’s Daughter is all about – and what gives it meaning beyond sheer entertainment – is ways in which people use one another, how they let themselves be used, and what they sacrifice. This general theme plays out in all the relationships, both individuals with society and individual with individual: Lanie and Nita, Nita and Mak, Lanie and Mak, Datu and Lanie, Datu and Mak, Lanie and Grandpa Rad. Cooney uses these to explore power differentials in relationships, both healthy and unhealthy ways in which they manifest.
There are two relationships that particular stand out as fascinating and timely. First is the close friendship and building romance between Lanie and Canon Lir, the non-binary priest, and sibling in Liriat’s ruling family. Touching and painful, it will pull at heartstrings. Second is Lanie’s relationship to the family’s indentured undead servant Goody Graves. Lanie’s realization of the injustices that her family did to the woman who became Goody – and the continued exploitation of her becomes a major plot of the novel, as Lanie fights not just for her security and the safety of her family, but also liberation and reparations for Goody.
Saint Death’s Daughter succeeds in many ways, most basically as an exciting story filled with atmospheric text, rich characterization, and subtle depth. For as long as the novel is – and even with the amount of closure as a self-contained story that it does offer – I finished the book and was fully ready to start reading what comes next.