Title: Heart of Mist
Author: Helen Scheuerer
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy
Heart of Mist is a fast-paced fantasy epic that’s set in a magical realm (where magic is forbidden!) composed of four continents: Ellest, Battalon, Havennesse, and Qatrola. Their borders are shrouded in a deadly mist, which threatens to kill more and more civilians as it continues to consume lands while gradually inching towards the kingdoms.
The story largely follows the struggles of Bleak, an orphaned gutter rat from the coastal village of Angove. Cursed with magical abilities that plague her everyday life, she desperately scours the kingdoms for a cure and self-medicates with alcohol. In her fruitless search for healing, she finds something else entirely: trouble. As well as an inevitable battle of power and politics she wants no part in.
That’s the first word that comes to mind when I think about my reading experience with Heart of Mist. For quite some time now, I’ve been reading fewer and fewer books. I guess my interest has been waning because my recent reads have been pretty ‘meh’ and so-so. Nothing to write home about, if I’m being honest. And this has also discouraged me from writing book reviews.
But with Heart of Mist, I don’t think I can find enough words to fully and adequately express how much I loved it. To say that I found this novel to be delightful and refreshing is a huge understatement. I was so immersed in its story that every now and then, I questioned if I was actually under a spell. In fact, I’m almost absolutely certain that the copy Helen sent me was enchanted with the strongest and most potent of Valian herbs. Heart of Mist is simply, purely, wonderfully magic.
Honestly, I don’t know what I want to talk about the most, so let’s begin with the novel’s heroine.
When I first learned that the main character was named Bleak, I didn’t know what to think. Was her name meant to be ironic? Or perhaps mildly satirical? It was only as I read the story that I came to realize how weirdly, terrifyingly fitting the name “Bleak” was because it succinctly summed up the life Bleak was living: withdrawn, directionless, and ostracized by society. Her past, her present and even her future looked bleak. She was lost in more ways than one. She was struggling to come to terms with her identity. That feeling of self-isolation, confusion, and hopelessness was something I could strongly relate to. If we really think about it, we all have a little bit of Bleak in us, yes?
Beyond her name, there were a lot of really interesting aspects to Bleak’s character such as her unhealthy addiction to alcohol, which is an uncommonly tackled theme in most Young Adult literature, and her remarkably resilient nature. However, what fascinated me the most were the moral gray areas in her character – how she was neither inherently good nor inherently evil. I don’t want to give away spoilers, but as an example, she occasionally used her ability to pickpocket from strangers, but she was capable of feeling compassion towards people she didn’t really know as well.
Bleak’s moral compass fluctuated every now and then, and it made her both human and realistically flawed. She was not the only character who held this kind of trait. In fact, I’d argue that most, if not all, characters in Heart of Mist were flawed and morally gray in some way in order to protect themselves, their interests, their secrets, and the ones they loved.
Eventually, the narrative expands and tackles the lives of other equally fascinating characters: Henrietta (“Henri”) Valia, the extraordinarily fierce matriarch of the Valia Kindred (an infamous clan of powerful female warriors); Dmitri Swinton, the Commander of the King’s Army with more than a handful of secrets of his own; Dash, the young stable boy who’s best friends with King Arden’s blind daughter. Even the lives of the supporting characters were explored and given much attention to, without necessarily sacrificing the quick pacing of the plot, which I found remarkable. Of the supporting cast, I adored Fiore and Luka the most.
It is, I think, incredibly rare to come across a fantastically structured, perfectly paced novel that rightfully gives every character his or her own story; however, this is exactly what Heart of Mist offered, and it paved the way to a thrillingly addictive reading experience complemented by equally engaging character relationships. As if the individual character developments were not sufficiently compelling to read about, the story featured a variety of interestingly dynamic relationships that portrayed love in its different manifestations, be it romantic, platonic, or familial.
Also, just to throw it out there, romance between the main character and the love interest was not a primary plot point!!! I cannot emphasize how refreshing it was to read a YA novel without a character perpetually swooning over another character in ridiculous amounts and frequencies.
Instead, the main themes Heart of Mist delved into (and quite bravely, if I may add) included adventure, loss, power, politics, feminism, and existing socioeconomic inequalities. It also took on mental and physical disabilities and LGBTQIA+ representation. Yep, you read that right. If, at any point of this book review, you start to hear the sound of someone loudly sobbing, that’s probably me.
In addition to this, all these themes were cleverly integrated into what could arguably be one of the most riveting, masterfully intricate plots I have ever encountered in any form of media, not just in books. Again, I feel that it would be best not to give too much away, but I will say this: The complexity of the story’s plot was backed up by well-founded world-building and was brought to life by effective writing.
If there’s anything that bothered me about this book, it’s the Young Adult rating. I don’t think Heart of Mist should be considered as a YA fantasy novel because it hinted at sexual scenes and sensitive themes. Also, the way it’s written possessed a resonating maturity that, I believe, transcends the YA genre. But I digress.
In a way, this book sort of reminded me of Game of Thrones not because they share similar plots, but because their stories are continuously eventful, only to tie nicely together towards the end. Also, reading the ending of Heart of Mist felt like watching a Game of Thrones season finale: it was extremely satisfying, but I’m still as insatiable as ever.
All in all, although Heart of Mist is her first novel, Helen has definitely proven that she does not merely tell stories; she weaves fantastically phenomenal tales that will keep all eyes glued to her craft. Helen’s writing style is an entirely different form of sorcery altogether. Her impeccable imagery will paint films inside your head, and her words will trap you under her spell.
Kudos to Helen for a brilliant, captivating debut novel! Heart of Mist is hands down the best book I’ve read in 2017 thus far, and I cannot wait to read what happens next in the Oremere Chronicles.
Excerpt from the book:
Henri nodded, putting the leaves to her mouth and chewing so the bitter-tasting sap ran. She moved back to Bleak’s side and mushed the wet leaves into the girl’s mouth, forcing them to the back of her tongue with her fingers. A second later, Bleak’s body stopped convulsing.
‘Is she going to be alright?’ Athene asked.
‘What’s wrong with her?’
‘That’s what I’d like to know.’
‘I’ll stay with her,’ said Athene, ‘you go ahead.’
‘No. We need to get to the keep. Splash some water on her face and get her up. I won’t wait.’
Bleak was proving to be more trouble than she was worth. Three days ago now, they’d been about to continue on to Angove River when she had felt the girl – her untamed magic had been like a beacon in the forest. Henri and her kindred had changed course, and watched as the girl was tugged along by a group of the King’s Guard. They had watched as that vile man had eyed her greedily. Henri hadn’t intended on interfering. To do so was to endanger their fragile relationship with the king. But the second the man had touched Bleak, all bets had been off. Valians never left a woman defenceless at the hands of a man, and they did everything within their power to quell that sense of entitlement. That was the Valian way.