Cas, the younger lord of the Oliveran fortress city of Palmerin, is no stranger to death. Mysteriously abducted near the Oliveran border in the midst of war with the neighboring kingdom of Brisas, he watched from afar for three long years as thousands fell to brutal violence and thousands more to a pestilence that ravaged the land. The plague's only mercy is that it allowed Cas to escape his cruel captors. All Cas wants now is to return home, reunite with his older brother, Ventillas, and make up for the years he's lost—but death still stalks the younger lord of Palmerin.
When he finally arrives in Palmerin, Cas—who was presumed dead—is met with chaos. A slippery assassin threatens the lives of the Oliveran royal family, who have fled the plague-ridden capital and taken up residence in the Palmerin Keep. As he enlists the help of Lena, a court historian and half-sister to the king, Cas realizes that the only path to tranquility will be to find the would-be killer.
Makiia Lucier's fourth novel, Year of the Reaper, is a fast-paced, fantastical mystery that's rife with courtly intrigue and twisty secrets and rooted in nuanced depictions of personal and societal trauma. As Cas and Lena work together to identify the assassin, a wellspring of secrets begins to burble forth, engendering mistrust among the characters and threatening to break the tenuous peace between kingdoms. Lucier's nimble plotting creates an ever-widening spiral of doubt that drives the story irresistibly forward.
Set in a fictional land inspired by Spain in the late Middle Ages, the novel resists getting bogged down in overly expository world building, which can easily become dry. Instead, Lucier spends time refining small details such as local delicacies, colorful textiles and scents that give dimension to the kingdom of Oliveras and enrich the plot. War and plague have left deep scars, but the people of Oliveras are lively and engaging despite the terrible things they've endured.
Lucier is particularly adept at portraying relationships. Cas and Ventillas' brotherhood is complex; love and trust are foundational to the pair's conversations, but resentment and suspicion seep in slowly through invisible cracks. Similarly, Cas and Lena's budding romance is believable because of their genuine friendship, which Lucier develops through harrowing adventures and intimate, convincing dialogue.
Year of the Reaper is quick to enthrall, with enough of an echo of the COVID-19 pandemic to be frightening. Seasoned fantasy readers will be beguiled by its unusual setting and Lucier's graceful sidestepping of cliches common to the genre. Though its conclusion leaves some threads untied and may not satisfy readers who prefer to have all their questions answered by the end of a book, Year of the Reaper is an emotionally immersive and consistently compelling read.