Heilig’s latest novel brings out a necromancer’s story in a fantasy world influenced by colonialism. Jetta is a part of a troupe of shadow players – an art that uses puppet shadows to play out a story – and with her necromancy talents, which are banned by the rulers by the way, she binds souls to puppets to make them move without strings. They are popular and looking for a way out of Chakrana (the colony of Aquitan and which is the Asian-like country) and into Aquitan (the kingdom across the Hundred Days sea, and which is standing in for France here) where she hopes to get a cure for illness (bipolar disorder is being mentioned as her malheur here) but it is getting difficult when they are revolutionary forces as well as a brewing civil war.
When I said I wanted diversity in genre fiction, this is what I was asking for. Jetta’s story is very much influenced by her illness – her manic episodes make her the performer she is, but it also leads to rash decisions that have unfortunate consequences. Her depressive episodes, the one I related to, felt raw and realistic to experience. Along with this, Jetta being Chakran and her country bound to Aquitan as a colony is also something that Heilig brings out in the narrative – they are being told that the rebel forces are the enemy, and the Aquitans have done a good job of villainising the people against their own countrymen. It doesn’t help that the previous ruler did not rein in the mysterious and powerful Le Trepas (a necromancer priest who built a cult around him) and the latter basically terrified the people enough that they fear to even speak his name.
The story is told mostly in Jetta’s first person narrative, but occasionally cuts to letters, telegrams, folklore stories, playbills, and scenes in the form of a script, which is how we get an understanding of how the war is brewing in Chakrana, and what the Aquitan forces stationed there are trying to do. There are people who think they are doing good by ‘taming’ the culture of the Chakrana while there are others who basically want an excuse to go on a genocidal rampage. But there is another latent threat looming – Le Trepas and his cohort, who still hide in the court they once ruled. Jetta’s mother is careful to keep her from that because of her powers, but ultimately, even the truth of what went on in the court and how it connects to their folklore.
A secondary character of interest is Leo, who is Aquitan-Chakran, and runs a theater and is in charge of a troupe of girls. There is a found family feeling to them, but I still didn’t understand why he essentially leaves them to go with Jetta. Speaking of the girls, they are a nice bunch and I hope to see more of them in the sequel, especially Tia (who is trans) and Cheeky. Other characters of note are the Chakran prince, who has more going on that initially thought, and Theodora, who is basically an engineer.