With a magic system that’s two parts enchantment and one part pseudoscience, The Helm of Midnight is a well-executed fantasy set in a heavily religious world reminiscent of Renaissance Europe. Author Marina Lostetter (Noumenon) brings together a cast of relatable, remarkably human characters across three separate timelines to tell a beautiful story of struggle, loss and, eventually, triumph.
Rather than spells and grand wizards, the world of The Helm of Midnight is built on a foundation of “scientific magic,” which is similar to traditional representations of alchemy. Magic is accessed via specific metals that each represent one of the five gods of the pantheon: Emotion, Knowledge, Unknown and twins Time and Nature. The twins are male and female; Emotion and Knowledge go by unique pronouns to represent their genders; and the Unknown's identification is undisclosed (perhaps representing nonbinary or genderfluid identity). These gods are central to everything in Lostetter’s world. Magic follows their rules, government is modeled on them and the plot circles around their religion.
In the present-day storyline, Krona, a Regulator of magical items and enchantments, is searching for two lost items: a death mask imbued with the spirit of a religious fanatic and serial killer and a stone of pure despair, enchanted to bestow grief on its wearer. As Krona continues her search, Lostetter weaves in the other two storylines, which unfold in the past, to paint a broader picture of the city-state and the greater history at play.
While the setting is rich and full of layered, complex culture, the core draw of The Helm of Midnight lies in its characters and their plights. These characters have suffered, are suffering or will suffer serious hardship. Dealing with grief, loss and emotional damage is as much a part of the book as the enchantments and murder wrought throughout. The city’s currency is literally lost time, which is taxed at birth, then bottled and sold. Emotions are drained away into stones in order to embrace good feelings and wash away painful ones. Masks are enchanted with the knowledge of the dead to avoid their disappearance into oblivion.
While clearly setting up for a series, Lostetter tells a complete and satisfying story within the 400 or so pages of The Helm of Midnight. Tears, smiles and surprise await any reader that opens this book.