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Nightbirds by Kate J. Armstrong has a lot to recommend it. All of its characters are distinctive and interesting, its world-building is strong, and the magic system is seriously cool. I’d say that anyone who enjoys well-written feminist fantasy should jump on this series now.
But let’s talk premise. Matilde, Sayer, and Æsa are the titular Nightbirds and point of view characters, girls with the greatest secret in all of Simta: they have magic. Within the last couple of centuries in Simta, the largest religion in the land began persecuting witches. This led to a shift in the politics of the area, placing aristocratic families and the church itself in power rather than the magical women who used to rule. Magic changed after the church’s victory, and the girls can no longer use their own power, only share it with other people by kissing them–for a price. They are protected by members of those elite families, in exchange for exclusive access to their gifts. The process of the three girls figuring out there is more to their abilities than they have always been told is deftly plotted and, despite the multiple narrating characters, all of whom keep secrets of varying importance, is quite easy to keep up with.
Each of the girls has a strong personality and a history to back it up, and while they may fit into rather tropey roles at the start (confident rich girl, jaded poor girl, the meek one), their tropes are not fate here, and that made for really fun reading. I was genuinely uncertain about how a couple of them were going to turn out by the end. Each viewpoint is further deepened by well-developed side characters who illustrate the sociopolitical landscape of Simta with delightful literary flair.
Speaking of which, the world Armstrong has created is solid enough that it practically serves as a secondary character unto itself. The history of the world is revealed at just the right rate, and the various cultures that are represented, despite the whole book taking place in one city, are well-defined and each adds something to the texture of the world. It’s well done, and nothing feels extraneous or excessive. A particularly nice touch was the invented etymologies of several familiar words, harkening back to fictional historical moments that lent a lot of depth to an already interesting setting.
As for the magic, well, it’s very cool. At risk of spoilers, Nightbirds provides a twist on the by now trite system of the four elements system, and toes a line between hard and soft magic as the girls learn more and more about their own abilities. I was interested and impressed with the way the magic was used in this book, and I look forward to seeing how it evolves in books to come.
Now, one thing I will say is that this book is not subtle about its themes or its politics. It’s very Matilde, Sayer, and Æsa against The Patriarchy™. Many aspects of the book’s history will ring familiarly to ours: the Simta’s primary church burned witches, women are ‘ruined’ by having a child out of wedlock, and sexism and sexual assault (nothing too graphic) are prominent themes throughout the book. I could see this being a point of frustration for some readers, who may want a less familiar conflict to go with the less familiar world, but it worked so well with the premise and the setting that I appreciated it. And it’s not a case of caricature either: there are men sincerely allied with the protagonists, and some women who oppose them and ally themselves with the Church and the Pontifex instead. It’s not as nuanced as it might be, but it’s appropriate for the genre, and the groundwork is laid so that future books can delve even deeper.
A few rapid-fire things before wrapping up. Love triangle? One threatens, but doesn’t come to fruition, huzzah! Queer characters with more attributes than just queerness? Yep! Maps in the front? Double yes! Masquerade ball? You betcha! Duplicity and back-stabbing and politics, oh my? Oh yeah. Speakeasies and jazz? Check and check. A heck of a fun feminist fantasy time? Absolutely. Nightbirds is a really strong launch to a promising series that I’d be happy to read more of.