Miscellaneous “Lanie,” Stones is a necromancer, the first one born to the infamous Stones family in ages. But there’s a condition: Lanie has a severe allergy to violence. So terrible is her condition that even the touch or presence of one who’s performed recent harm will cause an allergic reaction. And so, Lanie must be kept from her assassin mother and executioner father. Raised by the revenant Goody Graves, Lanie finds comfort in books and ghosts. As the novel begins, Lanie’s mother, father, and their aunt are dead—possibly murdered—she can’t raise them to ask what happened, and the family’s enormous debt has been called in right away.
And so begins Saint Death’s Daughter, debut novel by the World Fantasy Award-Winning writer, C. S. E. Cooney, truly one of the best books I’ll read this year; a novel about death that has entered my personal Top 10 for, well, life.
There’s only so much I can say about this feast of a book. The rest must be experienced, but I will do my best to convince you to pick up one of the best debut novels I’ve read in the last five years. C. S. E. Cooney is a writer with a one-of-a-kind voice, unafraid to go to extremes to illustrate a point, or lay bare the truth of a moment. The world of Liriat Proper comes alive with each frenetic swipe of her pen, painting in detail after detail with rich, evocative, beautiful language. Cooney is a writer who hears, “show, don’t tell,” and laughs in the face of such a tenet. “Show? Why I’ll show with the very best of them!” And she will, pointing out each and every facet of a character’s clothing, their facial tics, what their magic looks like to others but tastes like to them, the intricacies behind divine ritual and personal ritual, giving just as much importance to how someone takes their tea as how a god takes their worship. “And tell? Oh, how I’ll tell!” as she uses footnotes and in-world writing, storytelling and didactic lessons, every narrative device under the sun to enrich every corner of her world. By the end of the first hundred pages, Stones Manor and Liriat Proper will be just as real to you, dear reader, as the heartbeat under your skin and the marrow in your bones.
And while some novels can live off of this robust and layered and well-thought worldbuilding, Saint Death’s Daughter is even more replete with complex, contradictory characters of all makes and models with needs and wants that spark and fizz off of one another, creating clashes of magic, manner, and might. Cooney does not loose a single arrow from her quiver of characters that is fletched with drab, ordinary feathers, but rather, everyone she fires onto the page arrives in a burst: fully-realized, always finding their mark, dripping with detail and a fire in their heart. You will see, in a matter of sentences, how wonderfully human Cooney’s characters are: Mak, Lanie’s brother in law and ensnared falcon-warrior; Lanie’s dreadful, self-important sister, Aminita Stones, vicious and terrible, the mosaic of her heart off-kilter and missing a piece; Canon Lir, a fire-priest of the many-gendered god Sappacor, whose heart and grace and friendship they’ve given to Lanie ever since they were young. Cooney’s deft hand at those little details that brings a person or a golem or a ghost to inextricable life is on full display, page after page.
But this is the story of Saint Death’s daughter first and foremost, and it would not succeed if said daughter couldn’t carry the weight of her own story on her shoulders. I’m here to tell you that Miscellaneous Stones most certainly can. It is thrilling to watch her grow from an young allergy-riddled necromancer by navigating the demands of a ghostly ancestor withholding information, a royal who only wants to use her for her own gain, and a sister that sees her only as a punching bag. And as she grows older and life becomes more complicated, Lanie Stones does not balk at the challenges before her but, as she was raised, puts her nose to the grindstone—or into a book. Across almost 700 pages of pure narrative magic, and learning of the challenges facing the Stones family, the Brackenwild Royals, the threat of the Blackbird Bride, and more, the most joy I had was in watching Lanie Stones grow up, as a necromancer, an aunt, a sister-in-law, and a friend to those alive and dead. Cooney takes a classic bildungsroman, injects it with glitter, adrenaline, and un-death, and shows us every shade and joy that comes from that struggle toward adulthood and knowing yourself.
I could go on and on about Saint Death’s Daughter, the inimitable and breathtaking debut novel from C. S. E. Cooney, I really could. But you will be better served by reading it and exulting in the rich language, the beautiful narrative friction between people, magics, and nations, and letting Cooney reach out an ethereal hand to pull you into the world of Lanie Stones. Take her hand, reader, and journey into a world of stone, flame, birds, and yes, death. But death need not be scary. In the right hands—in Lanie’s hands and in the shadow of Saint Death herself—it can be as comforting as an embrace.
Martin Cahill is a writer living in Queens who works as the Marketing and Publicity Manager for Erewhon Books. He has fiction work forthcoming in 2021 at Serial Box, as well as Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Fireside Fiction. Martin has also written book reviews and essays for Book Riot, Strange Horizons, and the Barnes and Noble SF&F Blog. Follow him online at @mcflycahill90 and his new Substack newsletter, Weathervane, for thoughts on books, gaming, and other wonderfully nerdy whatnots.