Review: The Keeper of Night by Kylie Lee Baker

Summary: Half British Reaper, half Japanese Shinigami, Ren Scarborough has been collecting souls in the London streets for centuries. Expected to obey the harsh hierarchy of the Reapers who despise her, Ren conceals her emotions and avoids her tormentors as best she can.

When her failure to control her Shinigami abilities drives Ren out of London, she flees to Japan to seek acceptance she’s never gotten from her fellow Reapers. Accompanied by her younger brother, Ren enters the Japanese underworld to serve the Goddess of Death, only to learn that here, too, she must prove herself worthy. Determined to earn respect, Ren accepts an impossible task -find and eliminate three dangerous Yokai demons – and learns how far she’ll go to claim her place at Death’s side.

Genre: fantasy, young adult
Rating: ★★★★★

The Keeper of Night is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year. I’ve been in a slight reading slump, chugging through books but feeling content if I abandon them for a few days; nothing has been stealing or keeping my attention, and then this book came along and changed everything. I thought about it when I wasn’t reading it. I put headphones in and let the real world dissolve entirely as I got sucked into this one. I’m already excitedly anticipating the sequel.

What initially sucked me into this story (aside from the cover, hello look at it) was the writing style. The prose here is so gorgeous, and there were numerous times where I paused to reread a line because of how breathtaking and heartbreaking it was. This is definitely not an easy or heartwarming story, and the writing so eloquently emphasizes that without losing sight of the story arc or characters. In fact, the prose here left me feeling like I was actually on the adventure with the main characters. I could drown myself in Baker’s writing and can’t wait to read any and everything she writes in the future.

The night had become physically heavy on my shoulders with the weight of Hiro’s anguish. It tasted of soot on my tongue, crawling down my throat and filling up my lungs. I too knew how it felt to be crushed under the weight of the entire night sky.

I also genuinely loved how unique the entire story is. Books have been written before about Reapers, sure, but Ren is especially different because she’s half British and half Japanese, also making her part Shinigami. Japanese folklore is so terrifying and creative, and it’s this element that really sets it apart from similar story arcs. This isn’t a story about people with magical abilities discovering a mythical new world, like Alice in Wonderland. This is about actual harbingers of death violently fighting and killing malignant supernatural beings. The action scenes are gory, gruesome, and downright brutal. I loved meeting so many different types of characters and creatures, all taking place in a world that was so foreign to me (Japan and the underworld, of course). The general story arc here, with Ren running away from one side of her culture to discover another, isn’t necessarily a new device, but there are so many unique elements to her story, and I fell in love with every single one of them.

Ren’s relationship with her brother, Neven, was downright heartbreaking. Neven gave up being a Reaper, and essentially threw his entire life away, to join Ren on her journey. They might have only been half-siblings, but Neven never looked at Ren any differently, and along the way he protected her and helped her because he knew how important the journey was for her. Neven always saw Ren as just Ren, not half-Reaper or half-Shinigami; in his eyes, she was always enough, not necessarily designed by where she came from. But Ren craved more than that, and in her desperate attempt to be accepted by the part of her heritage that hadn’t rejected her, she caused their relationship to crack. I loved their relationship and what it stood for, and it was absolutely heartbreaking to see Ren push away the one person who had always accepted her as she was.

I also loved her relationship with Hiro, a character she meets along the way who guides her and introduces her to the underworld. Like Neven, I initially felt like there was something off about him the entire time, and I was waiting for a huge twist involving betrayal, but along the way I found myself warming up to him. He, like Neven, accepted Ren for who she was immediately, and I had such a soft spot for him. His relationship with Ren was enthralling, as he was the first person to truly desire her for who she was. Their relationship bordered on romantic without ever quite going that far or overthrowing the rest of the story, which I enjoyed.

Ren’s internal struggle and road to self-discovery was incredible, and it’s important to note that there is proper biracial Asian representation here. In Britain, Ren was never quite good enough to be a regular Reaper because of the other half of her heritage. She was bullied and even disowned by her own father, so she flees to Japan to discover and fully embrace the Shinigami part of herself. However, once she gets there, she’s still constantly called a foreigner, and she finds herself having to prove to others that she is enough. Her frustration over her her race was so well done (“Why am I the only one with no say in who I am?”) , and while I found the ending to be quite a whirlwind and surprise, I was happy to see where Ren ended up, as it cemented which piece of her heritage she embraced and clung to. I can’t wait to see where the sequel takes her.

I thought of Tennyson’s poems, how love and Death were supposed to be archenemies, light and darkness. But Tennyson had never known Reapers or Shinigami, or the look in Hiro’s eyes like he saw the entire universe in me, the darkness in his eyes that somehow looked starving, ready to devour everything, and maybe I wanted to be devoured.

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