Review | The Many Shades of Midnight – C.M. Debell

About the Book

Isyr. Stronger, brighter, more beautiful than other metals. Once the most desirable thing in Ellasia, now it is priceless, the pure Isyrium needed to produce it mined to exhaustion. What’s left is controlled by the powerful mining syndicates, and such is the demand for their Isyrium that even kings do their bidding. Yet just as the beauty of Isyr hides a deadly secret, so too do the syndicates. 

A terrifying enemy is spreading a plague across the land, a sickness that kills or transforms everything it touches. Unable to contain the outbreaks, the King of Lankara begs the aid of the disgraced former Duke of Agrathon, Alyas-Raine Sera, a man who has spent years fighting syndicate expansion and whose resentment over his exile makes him an unpredictable, dangerous ally in the power struggle between the rulers of Ellasia and the mining companies.

Attached to the envoy to recall the duke, the apprentice surgeon Brivar finds his skills and loyalty tested as his service to his new patron uncovers secrets about Isyr and the plague that link it to the mining of Isyrium – and threaten the life of the man it is his duty to safeguard.

In their own separate ways, Alyas and Brivar must take on the might of the syndicates and confront the greed, murder, betrayal and impossible choices of a crisis that has been decades in the making – and the price of their failure could be everyone and everything.

352 pages (paperback)
Published on February 1, 2023
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Note: I edited this book. 

I generally don’t take on books (to edit) that I don’t completely believe in. Sometimes, even with that in mind, a book will come along that will press all the right buttons and somehow manage to thrill both Reader Sarah and Editor Sarah at the same time. Those books are the truly special ones. The ones that I know I’ll be thinking about for a long, long time. 

When Debell contacted me about editing, I did a sample edit of this book and I think I wrote her back something like, “I love this so much I’d just about pay you for the opportunity to work on it.” I just knew from that sample that this was something truly special, a book that would echo through the corridors of my soul for a while. Something I fundamentally needed to read.

The Many Shades of Midnight is unlike any other fantasy I’ve really ever read, which is one reason why it worked so well. Set in a well-realized, stunningly developed secondary world, Debell decided to keep everything intimate, so here you get this really interesting marriage of an tight plot meshed with the sense of sprawling worldbuilding that fantasy is so known for. Rather than bogging down her book with the vastness of her creation, she makes the things that matter sit center stage, unavoidable, and leaves other things hinted at, or just present enough to give readers a sense of more without overwhelming them with it. 

The decision to do this was wise, because it allows readers to focus on the story more than anything else, and since there’s some intense character work in this book, that focus will pay off as events unfold. 

The characters are amazing. I will flat-out say that I don’t think I’ve read a book with such carefully considered characters, character development, and character relationships before. The friendships between the main characters are so deep, so real, I feel like they should stand as an example to other authors who are looking to create realistic platonic character friendships. The emotional notes each of the characters hit is fantastic, their voices are unique throughout, as are how they approach and deal with things. 

Quite frankly, these are some of the best characters I’ve ever read, full-stop. There’s so much about them to love. Not only does Debell manage to emotionally invest me in every aspect of her characters, but she also manages to balance that with a plot that is just as gripping. It’s really quite something to watch her operate on these two different levels (internal and external) and weave them both together so effortlessly. This makes the plot an extension of the characters and watching how one impacts the other is… it’s nothing short of pure mastery. 

Honestly, this book has some of the best character work I have ever read. 

Now, the plot is… stunning, really. One of my favorite things is to read a fantasy book that has themes that resonate profoundly with our real-world struggles and it’s been a while since I’ve seen that done quite so well, or so pointedly, as in this book. Here Debell marries fantasy and environmental issues, climate change and the like, and she does it so very well. 

Isyr is a strong metal that Ellasia has built its economy on, but it’s drying up at the mines and a new, strange plague is spreading across the land. An investigation is launched to discover what is causing this strange illness, pitting our protagonists against the government, powerful mining syndicates, and the populous itself. (I really don’t want to go too much into plot details because reading, and figuring it out as you go, is part of the joy.)

Alyas and Brivar come at this from two different perspectives. Alyas has a dark, haunted past and plenty of history that pits him against the forces that be. An exile, and a man who has spent plenty of years fighting mining expansion, he has a certain no nonsense, businesslike manner that seems to always cut to the core of situations. 

And there is Brivar, a surgeon’s apprentice who has been tasked with investigating the cause of this plague. Once Alyas and Brivar join forces, nothing will be the same: neither them nor the world they inhabit. Since each of them come at this problem in very different ways, it helps readers get a more nuanced perspective of what’s going on. More, however, it’s incredible to watch their friendship develop. Brivar is a character who instantly stole my heart, showing that gentle does not always mean weak, and Alyas’s emotional depth was truly something to behold. 

Brivar, quite honestly, is everything. I’ve never seen such a gentle character in fantasy with such a core of strength he draws from to stay that soft. And his hope balances out Alyas’s brooding perfectly, but it also bonds them in some unexpected ways as well.

As the plot unwinds, Debell keeps things going at a quick pace, somehow knowing when readers will need a moment to collect their thoughts, and when they’ll need action and forward momentum. It was impossible to put this book down, through all its wild twists and turns, through themes that resonate so profoundly with our modern day, through friendships the likes of which fantasy needs more of. Through the quiet moments of (sometimes painful) introspection. This book aches, but it’s a glorious kind of ache. It’s like looking at a master painter at his craft. It’s something you just… let happen to you and once it does, you’ll be so glad it did.

This isn’t a light book by any stretch of the imagination. Dark things happen here, and yet Debell writes with such grace, such empathy. Her prose is fluid, verging on poetic. Her characters are so real they live and breathe off the page, and the environmental themes are something that resonates profoundly with us in this day and age. More, all of this charges straight for an ending that is… to put it frankly, as unexpected as it is gripping. 

As you can tell, I loved every part of this book. It’s one of my favorite recent discoveries. It has some of the best character work I’ve ever seen, and themes that profoundly resonate with our own day and age (Also, after I edited this book, I told the author to go watch Glass Onion on Netflix. If you read this book, watch that movie after and I’ll let you guess why I suggested that.)

The Many Shades of Midnight is precisely executed with every aspect of it carefully considered. It’s unlike any fantasy I’ve read yet, and perhaps that’s part of the draw. It’s hard to write a book that stands out so well for its unique qualities in a world where so many books are being released all the time, but Debell managed it. From the flawless writing to the stunning character work and the gripping plot, every part of this book shines. 

It’s the kind of story that breathes both on and off the page.

5/5 stars