Holy hell, this book. THIS BOOK. What a beautiful story about love and sacrifice. I laughed, I cried. Sometimes at the same time.
About the Book
Publisher: Delacorte Press | Release Date: October 29, 2019 | Pages: 416
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy | Format: Paperback ARC | Source: Publisher
In the walled city-state of Alu, Kammani wants nothing more than to become the accomplished healer her father used to be before her family was cast out of their privileged life in shame.
When Alu’s ruler falls deathly ill, Kammani’s beautiful little sister, Nanaea, is chosen as one of three sacred maidens to join him in the afterlife. It’s an honor. A tradition. And Nanaea believes it is her chance to live an even grander life than the one that was stolen from her.
But Kammani sees the selection for what it really is—a death sentence.
Desperate to save her sister, Kammani schemes her way into the palace to heal the ruler. There she discovers more danger lurking in the sand-stone corridors than she could have ever imagined and that her own life—and heart—are at stake. But Kammani will stop at nothing to dig up the palace’s buried secrets even if it means sacrificing everything…including herself.
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Narrative style: first person | Perspective(s): single (Kammani)
Holy hell, this book. THIS BOOK. What a beautiful story about love and sacrifice. I laughed, I cried. Sometimes at the same time. This was the best book to buddy read because it features such an iconic ride or die friendship, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading this with Haley & Ruby. You can read some of our thoughts in this twitter thread as we read the book.
“It was a tradition almost everyone considered an honor. Everyone but me.”
All that you really need to know about the plot is provided in the synopsis: the Lugal (king) is dying, and that means that three gravemaidens have been chosen to usher his soul into the afterlife. But when Kammani’s sister is chosen as one of the sacrifices, she vows to use her knowledge of healing to save the lives of not on the Lugal, but Nanaea as well.
“We can never know for certain what lies beyond the grave. It could be an honor. But it could be emptiness. Or horror. We won’t know until we cross the river ourselves.”
The worldbuilding is fantastic. I love the way that Coon unfurled the belief system and traditions of the world through a scared child and oral storytelling. I found the book to be fast-paced and engaging, the stars of the show are definitely the characters and their complex relationships with one another. Their desires are all in conflict with one another, but the driving force for each of them is love. Since this is a single-POV narrative, I really enjoyed watching Kammani try to reconcile her beliefs and desires with that of her own. I think there was good growth on her part depicted and I am looking forward to seeing a bit more from Nanaea in the second part of this duology.
The characters act blissfully their age, and I think Coon did a good job depicting the thought process of teenagers and their impulsivity. You know how it is when you think you don’t want a thing, but then your actions tell a different story and you don’t understand why. (No, I do not want to go back to high school, never ever.) Not only that, but they are allowed to make their decisions and mistakes – which is an important part of growing up.
“It’s your life, child. But I hope you realize you may regret the decision not to speak up and accept love when it’s right under your nose. Trust me on that.”
One part of the story that really speaks to me personally is Kammani’s uncertainty surrounding the societal expectations of marriage and bearing children. I liked Kamani’s rational questions to the irrational and overwhelming emotions of being a teenager and having warring thoughts and emotions. The fact that she has a choice most girls in this world don’t have in terms of marriage adds a layer of complexity to not only her worldview but how everyone else sees her.
I’m going to say this right now: I hated Nanaea. I thought she was selfish and prideful, her level of flirtatiousness and egotism bringing to mind Lydia from Pride and Prejudice, and she drove me bonkers. But then I made the connection that this story is told from Kammani’s perspective, and as the older sister she naturally would exaggerate how her younger sibling (who she thinks is naive and making a huge mistake) is acting. And that is freaking brilliant. I connected with Kammani so well that I was seeing the characters through her own emotions. This may be in large part because I have similar views to what happens when we die and am an older sister, but that doesn’t diminish how masterfully Coon wrote these characters!
Dagan and Iltani (and to some degree Nasu) round out Kammani’s squad, and honestly? I am here for it. Iltani is the ultimate wing-woman and the kind of friend I aspire to be: hopelessly there for your bestie and down for whatever their shenanigans are. Dagan deserves an award for being an incredibly understanding dude in a pretty patriarchal society, plus he was shirtless when we first met him at the market and probably deserves to be on the cover of a romance novel. I stan men who respect women.
“Logic doesn’t matter when you’re in misery.”
The truth is that I am writing this review almost two months after finishing Gravemaidens, and the character relationships have left a lasting impression on me. I often think about the complicated sisterly relationship between Kammani and Nanaea (it doesn’t hurt that I am also the older sister and can relate), about the ultimate wing-woman Iltani always by Kammani’s side for rather dubious plans, and the soft will-they-won’t-they childhood friendship and possibly unrequited love from Dagan.
“Letting go of anguish meant forgiving those who’d given it to you in the first place.”
This is a beautiful story of love and sacrifice, but also of grief and acceptance. Gravemaidens is an excellently plotted and captivating YA fantasy debut, and while the world depicted is harsh and (please make note of the content warnings at the bottom of my review and take care fo yourselves), it’s also intensely feminist with a whole lot of hope. If you like rich fantasy worlds that center on character relationships, this is a book you will not want to miss!
Content warnings: abuse, alcoholism, attempted sexual assault, classism (and poverty), death, grief, human sacrifice, loss of a parent, rape (inferred), ritual sacrifice, torture
ARC provided by Delacorte Press in exchange for my honest review. Quotations have been checked against a finished copy of the book.
Have you read Gravemaidens yet, or is it on your TBR? What other books would you recommend with fantastic sibling/friend relationships?