Published: April 13, 2021
Publisher: Tor Books
Series: The Five Penalties #1
Genre: Fantasy, Mystery
Pages: 464 (Hardcover)
My Rating: 4.5/5.0
A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
A legendary serial killer stalks the streets of a fantastical city in The Helm of Midnight, the stunning first novel in a new trilogy from acclaimed author Marina Lostetter.
In a daring and deadly heist, thieves have made away with an artifact of terrible power–the death mask of Louis Charbon. Made by a master craftsman, it is imbued with the spirit of a monster from history, a serial murderer who terrorized the city with a series of gruesome murders.
Now Charbon is loose once more, killing from beyond the grave. But these murders are different from before, not simply random but the work of a deliberate mind probing for answers to a sinister question.
It is up to Krona Hirvath and her fellow Regulators to enter the mind of madness to stop this insatiable killer while facing the terrible truths left in his wake.
I’ve been looking forward to this fantasy/mystery hybrid for months now and somehow resisted the temptation to abandon my schedule and read it immediately. A synopsis that tells of a death mask imbued with the spirit of a heinous serial killer that is now loose on the world is quite frankly, irresistible. And the cover with a minimalist yet imposing figure on the front just made me even more curious! The best part is, the actual contents are just as cool as I could have hoped.
De-Krona Hirvath is on guard duty at a lavish party where a collection of notorious magical artefacts including the death mask are on display. The last thing she could have expected was a varg attack and the subsequent (or more likely, simultaneous) theft of Louis Charbon’s death mask and an enchanted gem filled with despair. Her team is tasked with the recovery of the valuable and highly dangerous artefacts, but they are too late to stop the first murder. The victim is grotesquely carved up and displayed as if they are ghastly meat flowers – the signature style of Louis Charbon, the Blooming Butcher. Someone has put on his death mask and they are likely taken over by his spirit as the mask was ranked highly on the danger scale. The higher the ranking, the more likely the wearer will have to fight or be subsumed by the personality of the dead person infused within the mask. The race is on to find the mask wielder so that another corpse bloom may be prevented and also so De-Lia Hirvath (our protagonist’s sister) is not censured for letting the mask be stolen in the first place, as she is the captain of their unit.
In addition to De-Krona’s point of view, we also have that of two other characters, the first of which is Louis Charbon himself. It’s interesting that the author chose to give a deceased serial killer quite so many chapters, but they really help to flesh out the story and make it something truly great. This background helps the reader to understand what drove Louis Charbon from a scholarly family man to a deranged murderer and corpse mutilator. The other POV is that of Melanie, and her story begins ten years prior to the story’s current day. We meet her as she rent’s a particular healer’s mask so that she might gain the knowledge to cure her mother. At first Melanie’s POV doesn’t mesh particularly well with the rest of the story, and as we go further we begin to see how it does in fact blend in, though I won’t spoil it.
This was a fascinating and dark tale, with super cool world building and magic. The story is far from a straight up murder mystery and pulls in the fascinating magic and even some of the five gods. The magic, as you may have gathered, is based on physical enchanted objects like masks (containing the essence of the dead), gems (containing emotions), and other physical objects. It’s quite fascinating and takes a bit of time to wrap your head around, but it just clicked for me and I think the system is awesome. The involvement of the gods is somewhat more subtle than the theft of an infamous death mask and involves spoilers. I will say that I look forward to seeing how future books in the series play out now that the influence of the gods has been revealed.
The Helm of Midnight was a definite win for me. It took me a little while to click with some of the characters, but I never disliked them and until that point, the plot was strong enough to keep me heavily invested anyway. I’ll be thrilled to hear news of the sequel and to see what becomes of our characters as they move on and as the setting expands.