Lisette of the Raven, Ash of the Rook by Suzanne J. Willis (available from Falstaff Books)
This is a rich and gorgeously written fantasy novella set in a fascinating world and it had me hooked from the very first chapters. I mean, how can you not love a story where the executioner is dressed in silk, a dead woman speaks, and ravens gather the faint echoes of the last words of the condemned?
The official blurb:
Lisette comes from a long line of executioners and is learning the trade from her mother. When Lisette’s secret is discovered, her life takes an unexpected turn.
Living on the edge of the Desert of Loss, catching the echoes of the condemned before they pass through into the labyrinth, is not for the faint-hearted. Then the echoes begin to speak back, carrying a message from the dead, and setting Lisette in search of answers. A search that leads her to the very last place she should be.
Early on in the story, Lisette heads into the labyrinth together with Gem, a charcoal burner, and Julio, her one remaining raven. (The loss of her other ravens is part of what sets Lisette on the path into the forbidden world beyond the gates of the labyrinth.) What follows is a perilous quest into a strange realm where everything hangs in the balance, and where Lisette learns more than she bargained for about the fate of all those condemned souls that passed through the gates before her.
In the end, the repercussions of what has happened both in Lisette’s world and in the world beyond the gates, come to a head, and it turns out that there is more guilt and judgement to go around than Lisette or Gem might have bargained for.
I devoured this novella in a couple of sittings. The language is gorgeous and Willis keeps you hooked with the twists and turns of the plot and by plunging you into a richly imagined fantasy world. I love how Willis also delves deeper beneath the surface of that world, finding its dark corners and its unexpected shadows, skilfully giving both the world and the characters real depth and complexity. There’s a wonderful fairytale vibe to this fantasy world, and yet it has an edge and enough grit to make it vibrant and compelling.
In an interview on Angela Slatter’s website, Willis had this to say about the novella:
Lisette herself is one of my favourite characters – she became totally deaf as a child and her destiny changed drastically as a result. I lost my hearing in my right ear over a period of ten years or so (which, due to the amazing things that surgeons can do, has recently been completely restored), and I really wanted to write an adventure story in which the heroine is brave and bold and not wishing to be “fixed” or “cured” of her deafness. I’m quite passionate about seeing characters with “disabilities” being presented in the same types of stories as fully-abled characters. I also wanted to share some of the silent world with readers.
In that interview, Willis also reveals that she has another novella forthcoming from Falstaff Books, set in the same “Broken Cities” world as Lisette of the Raven, Ash of the Rook. It’s called The Scarab Children of Montague and takes place in Montague, a city “that sits within the labyrinth, a city made entirely of doors that lead to all different lands, and parts of the labyrinth itself.” Can’t wait to read it!
And if you want to sample some of Willis’s short fiction, you can start with the fabulous “A Nightingale’s Map of the City”, published in Metaphorosis Magazine in 2017.