This Dark Descent

Roaring Brook. Sept. 2023. 400p. Tr $20.99. ISBN 9781250812360.
Gr 9 Up–Game of Thrones meets The Hunger Games—with horses—in a dark fantasy that is in turns gripping and maddening. Mikira is a jockey in illegal horse races who survives in a repressive surveillance society, in the capital city of Enderlain. After entering into an unwise bargain with an evil young lord, Rezek, Mikira enters into a counter-alliance with Lord Damian Adair, who hires an unlicensed Kinnish enchanter, Arielle, to build a golem-horse to help Mikira win a high-stakes steeplechase famous for on-course assassinations. This book is at its best when it grapples seriously with what it means to be Jewish in the fantasy genre. Josephson portrays the entwined history, theology, and magical systems of Kinnism and Sendism (the Jewish and Christian stand-ins). Arielle and Damian both grapple with their own fraught connection to their culture as well as to a hostile majority. This brings positive associations with Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver. The class and political dynamics of Enderlain are on shakier ground. Most prominently, Damian is repeatedly disparaged for being a spoiled nobleman, the scion of a diseased aristocracy. But his family’s ennoblement has happened within his lifetime and his parents were first-generation immigrants, suggesting fluid class dynamics. Moreover, the rival reformer tempting Mikira’s sympathies from Damian is a princess? That doesn’t sound like it will end with systematic change! Alongside exciting racing scenes, there is also plot silliness, such as strategist Damian leaving a signet ring he needs in the hands of a man he has killed—in order to get that ring.
VERDICT Alternately engrossing and messy, this adventure is for large collections wishing to diversify their fantasy shelves.

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