Saint Death’s Daughter by C. S. E. Cooney is at once a breath of fresh air and the warm embrace of homecoming. Within its perfectly sized 480 pages, this first book in a series that provides crossover appeal between the YA and adult fantasy genres manages to enchant, surprise, and rip out one’s heartstrings. It is an absolute delight. A coming-of-age story placed within an incredibly complex and detailed world, Saint Death’s Daughter follows a necromancer named Lanie Stones—whose goddess is Saint Death Herself—as she overcomes trials, grows into her own power, fulfills an important promise, discovers romantic and familial love, and matures into a young woman.
Reading C. S. E. Cooney’s debut novel was like going back to my childhood in the best possible way, reminding me of stories with the same mixture of compelling characters, dry humor, and cheeky prose. Alongside this was rich worldbuilding that lurked under the surface while also being incredibly present, and the clever handling of difficult subject matter. I am hard-pressed to remember any of these dimly remembered titles at the moment, but what I can say is that this novel is everything that fantasy should be to my childhood mind—and my adult self was delighted with each new page.
From the minute I began reading, it was clear how much depth, heart, and uniqueness this novel had. The glossary of important worldbuilding elements at the beginning; the fantasy names for each day, month, season, and holiday; the prologue, which introduced key characters, their traits, and the overall plot for Part 1; the parts, chapter titles, and interior design (the skeletons sketched under the title of each part added a nice touch); the footnotes, which provided a dry running commentary on the background of certain characters and world elements while also adding to the overall tone, deepening the sense of history and realness of the worldbuilding; and the time skips, which ensured a pacing that never felt off while allowing the author to focus on specific plot points and periods in Lanie’s life. Each technical element lent itself perfectly to the genre of high, second-world fantasy. Also, there was a building sense of tension and dread throughout that made me want to find out what happened next, and that was resolved beautifully. That was perhaps the only aspect of the novel that bothered me—there was perhaps too much tension, in that I had to stop reading at points because it was simply overwhelming.
The prose itself is lush, descriptive, and vibrant. There are wonderful lines such as “Lanie forced herself deeper into her father’s rooms, shattering memories with her body as she made a beeline for the wardrobe,” or, “It was as if she moved through the world protected by the walls of an invisible library—only instead of the idiosyncratically Stonesish texts on necromancy and espionage and interrogation and assassination, what Canon Lir had given her was a lexicon of the very world she found herself in right now,” or even this:
She wanted to eat everything and everyone right down to the bone and suck the marrow clean. The sun warmed her scalp until she felt every strand of her hair as an individual hot wire. Her clothing was not just cloth anymore: it was petals bursting from her body; she was a flower, like Goody said, a girl-bouquet, open to everything, unfurling in her surge.
I kept highlighting sentences in my eARC copy because the writing was so beautiful.
While some fantasy novels have a simple, straightforward style that allows the plot to shine better, C. S. E. Cooney’s writing is an integral part of Lanie’s character arc, the world itself, and even some of the plot points. The clever wordplay, the longer sentences, and the descriptions—colours, surroundings, character traits—contribute significantly, alongside the almost feverish tone during Lanie’s surges, to what makes this novel shine. Moreover, the narration itself is often whimsical or humorous, which often creates a dissonance with the subject matter, and allows our main character to be a (somewhat) unreliable narrator without it feeling out of place. The dissonance created between the highly wrought prose and the purposefully off-hand narration also allows the novel’s emotional moments to hit harder, the whimsical prose acting as a lure before the reader is overwhelmed with EMOTIONS and philosophical questions.
There are many elements, then, that set Saint Death’s Daughter apart, while still firmly placing it in the current SFF canon. The first and perhaps most significant of these is the incredible and unique worldbuilding. Rather than make her countries and customs somewhat or directly analogous to our world, such as in R. F. Kuang’s Poppy War series, the countries and customs of Liriat, Quadiíb, and the other nations that feature in Saint Death’s Daughter are all new and innovative. Moreover, C. S. E. Cooney has managed to create grounded mythologies, languages, and customs for her world, from the way in which those in Quadiíb express themselves, to how Liriat was founded, to the constant comparisons and cultural exchanges between these two cultures, to the gods and their domains, to the architecture, etc. Similarly, the fact that the Stoneses were immigrants from Quadiíb, and that Goody—one of Lanie’s dearest friends, as well as the father of her niece, Mak—is from Quadiíb, create the perfect stage for themes of immigration, cultural exchange, and assimilation. The importance of broadening one’s worldview and combating stereotypes is explored in depth. As someone who comes from various cultures, it was refreshing for me to see how C. S. E. Cooney managed to handle these topics, and made them integral to the novel’s plot, worldbuilding, and character development.
The author also goes out of her way to create a rich family history for Lanie, both through the footnotes and the main text. This is achieved through constant references to the Stoneses, their roles as the left hands of the rulers of Liriat, and their (often gruesome) accomplishments, as well as through the evolving mystery of Goody Graves and Saint Death’s patronage of the Stoneses. Even the names of her family help create that depth—both full names and nicknames. From Amanita Muscaria Stones (known as Nita), to Miscellaneous Stones (Lanie), to Halidom Stones, to Even Quicker Stones, the names themselves convey a sense of the characters, an important worldbuilding throughline, and add to the charming and whimsical tone.
The world’s magic system also feels very organic and singular. The different forms of magic in Quadiíb, Liriat, and among the Rookish wizards—the types of wizard or sorcerer, their marks, the different gods and mythologies from each culture—all create tension, deepen the worldbuilding, and allow for a spectacular showdown at the end of the novel. Lanie’s necromancy, the Rookish parliament, and the Gyrlady-Gyrgardi bond were like no other magic systems I’d read before. It was therefore exciting both to see characters use their magic, but also to watch the cultures and magic systems interacting.
This focus on innovation, however, does not mean that Saint Death’s Daughter does not fit in very well with recent trends in fantasy novels (and older ones as well): queernorm worlds; important meditations on culture (cultural assimilation, the hypocrisies different cultures visit on each other, the importance of understanding other languages and customs); complex themes of agency, family, hope, grief, death, ethics, nature versus nurture; and morally complex characters. The story and worlds that Cooney has created are incredibly diverse and accepting: there are different cultures and skin tones here, queerness is presented as normal, a key character is nonbinary (with they/them pronouns), and the novel’s gods and goddesses embody the spectrum of gender and gender expression. All of this exists at every level of the novel, and is expressed by the author in large, structural ways and smaller, episodic—even incidental—ones. Take Liriat’s “two modes of ritual habiliment for the high holy fire feast of Midsummer”—as explained to us toward the beginning of chapter 29: “Persons electing ‘floomp’ followed the sartorial edict to ‘turn themselves inside out,’ to become their own extravagant opposite—whatever that meant to them. ‘Froofers,’ on the other hand, strived to reveal, in the intricacy of their outerwear, their fanciest, happiest, most decorated inner self. These two modes were not always, or even often, mutually exclusive.”
The author also makes a point to explore morality and ethics—embedding it again through the novel, everywhere from Mak’s situation, to Lanie’s upbringing, to the story of Goody Graves. Characters are selfish, they lie, they lash out because they have been hurt, and sometimes—despite the best of intentions—things go wrong. Characters are complicit, they clash in child-rearing practices, and are often deeply wounded. The long fingers of history continue to play a role in the present, setting the backdrop for the plot and greatly influencing the viewpoint of many characters. C. S. E. Cooney has crafted real characters and complicated situations, ensuring that the reader knows the motivations behind characters’ decisions, as well as their ramifications. What about vengeance, justice? Prejudices that cloud one’s perception? Hurt characters who find it surprising that others care about them? What about choice and empathy? Saint Death’s Daughter explores all of these in full.
This novel is not, then, an extremely simple and straightforward read; there is a lot of worldbuilding, the prose is often complex, and there are many descriptions and important details to remember. Our narrator is often unreliable in one way or another, although the reader can usually tell when Lanie is not quite assessing the situation at hand correctly. The themes are also very heavy at times, dealing with violence, abusive childhoods, morality and ethics, grief and death, justice versus vengeance, coercion and abuse. Nevertheless, these elements are what render this novel such a breathtaking and spectacular read.
Saint Death’s Daughter by C. S. E. Cooney exemplifies what fantasy can do in the best of ways. As the first book in a series, this book manages to resolve some important plot points while leaving many threads unfurled for further instalments. We get to see Lanie’s character develop and mature, and we see her learn important lessons; however, there are many things that are left open, questions that need to be answered, and adventures that await. While the epilogue provides important catharsis, C. S. E. Cooney refuses to tie neat bows, and leaves much—plot, emotional beats—that still needs to be resolved. If a true conclusion nevertheless awaits, Saint Death’s Daughter does stand on its own, and I highly recommend it: it filled a hole in me that I had no idea was there. Fans of longer books, cheeky and humorous prose, unreliable narrators, difficult topics, a unique and lived-in fantasy world with gods and magic and various cultures, and a story that makes you laugh and cry will find Saint Death’s Daughter to be just the book to read.