It blew me away.
Set in an Arabian Nights-inflected fantasy realm, THE MIDNIGHT SEA introduces us to Nazafareen, a teenage member of a nomadic people. When her younger sister is killed by a wight--one of the forms taken by the demonic Druj, undead creatures that once fought against the empire--Nazafareen swears to avenge her sister's death. She's given her opportunity to do so when the elite Water Dogs, soldiers whose job it is to hunt out and slay Druj, recruit her to join them. As a member of the Water Dogs, Nazafareen is "bonded"--linked both physically and spiritually--to a domesticated (or enslaved) Druj known as a daeva. Together, using her power of command and his magical control over the elements, Nazafareen and the daeva Darius set out to destroy Druj. But the discoveries Nazafareen makes about the Druj--not to mention her attraction to Darius, who's anything but the monster she imagined he would be--cause her to question whether she's fighting on the side of justice after all.
I don't read a lot of epic fantasy these days, though it constituted almost my entire reading diet when I was younger. Thus it's always a pleasure to discover a fantasy realm that's totally original and compelling, one I can sink into the way I used to sink into the worlds created by Tolkien, Le Guin, McCaffrey, and Donaldson. That's exactly how I felt while reading Ross's novel; the history of the realm, the mythology of the Druj, the physical description of the various environments, and the characterization of the multiple peoples, both evil and good, were so brilliantly realized I felt completely immersed in a "real" place. If I were to draw parallels to contemporary YA fantasies, I'd put THE MIDNIGHT SEA alongside Leigh Bardugo's Grisha trilogy, which similarly is set in an alternative real world (Russia in Bardugo's case) that feels absolutely unique and absolutely convincing. It's a very special writer who can weave such a rich and complex tapestry, and Ross is exactly that.
I was also drawn to Nazafareen--and teen readers, I'm confident, will absolutely love her. She's tough yet vulnerable, so anguished by the loss of her sister she lets herself believe whatever the Water Dogs tell her about the Druj. Her awakening to the true state of affairs is thus an awakening to emotional maturity--to adulthood. And her awakening to the love she feels for Darius perfectly complements her developing awareness of life's complexities. I'm not always a fan of romantic relationships in YA fantasy and science fiction; they often seem perfunctory and distracting, added more for their marketing appeal than their intrinsic value to the narrative. But here, the love between Nazafareen and Darius--like everything else in the book--feels fresh, original, and completely essential to the story being told.
THE MIDNIGHT SEA releases in May, and it's the first book in a series, so there's much more to come. YA Guy for one can't wait to see where this brilliant new story takes me.