Lisette of the Raven, Ash of the Rook by Suzanne J. Willis is part of the Broken Cities line published by Falstaff Books. Each story, novel, or novella is a stand-alone, but occupies a shared universe. Lisette of the Raven, Ash of he Rook was published last September, and the author was kind enough to send me a copy for review.
Lisette comes from a long line of executioners. She has always known it is her destiny to follow in her mother’s footsteps, and the footsteps of all the other women in the family who came before her. However, at thirteen years old, Lisette is losing her hearing, leaving her unable to do a vital part of the executioner’s job – hear the condemned’s last confession. She tries to hide the truth from her mother, but her mother finds out and apprentices Lisette to an echo-catcher, setting her on a different path. During one of the last executions Lisette assists her mother with, one of the condemned delivers an ominous warning: The mothers are coming.
Seven years later, Lisette is still part of the cycle of life and death, gathering the last remaining echoes of the condemned and sending them through the labyrinth gate and into the next world. She has her raven companions, and she is content in her work, but one day a rook made of ash comes to Lisette with a message from a nearby charcoal burner’s camp. Obeying the rook’s summons, Lisette meets Gem, a young man who asks for her help with some mysterious branches he removed from the labyrinth and burned without realizing how dangerous they were. Soon after meeting Gem, a woman appears wearing a cloak of raven feathers, raising children made of ash from the remains of Gem’s fire. She is one of the mothers Lisette was warned of years ago, seeking justice for her lost children, and Lisette and Gem soon find themselves tangled up in her quest for vengeance and fighting for their lives.
The woman wandered–no slithered–around the camp, bending to sniff at the food bowls and passing her hands through the flame. Everything she touched froze, so that even the flame and smoke became delicate sculptures of themselves.
Even at novella length, Willis manages to infuse this story with an epic feel. The world is lush and gorgeously described, and one of the main joys here is simply reveling in the beautiful prose. The novella is a visual feast, with a highly cinematic quality, leaving it easy to imagine the magical world unfolding on every page. Another of the story’s highlights is Lisette’s relationship with her ravens, particularly Julio, her closest companion. The way they communicate, trust, and protect each other is lovely. As animal companions in fantasy go, birds are more frequently associated with villains, acting as aloof and threatening omens, but Julio shows the affectionate and brilliant side of corvidae. There’s some nice exploration of loss, destiny versus freedom, and a reminder to look beneath the surface as things aren’t always what they seem towards the end of the novella. Overall, Lisette of the Raven, Ash of the Rook is a quick, but satisfying high fantasy read.