I have to admit up front that I did not finish this book. I glanced through the second half to see what was going to happen because I wanted to know, but not enough to actually stick it out. It had some definite quality points, but halfway through my problems with it became too big to ignore. I will tell you all about my reasons why below, and explain why I came to a 2.5 star rating. Be advised, though: because I’m going into detail about what I didn’t like, there are some obvious spoilers for the events in this book.
The premise of Reign of the Fallen is strong. Necromancers who raise their country’s leaders again and again so as to stave off change, and then deadly Shades are set loose to ruin all of that. When I found out that this book also supports a large cast of LGTBQ characters (including the main character), that was another huge point in its favour. It’s difficult to find books that have a main gay or bisexual character – let alone any of the other letters – that are marketed to a mainstream audience. I feel very strongly that we need to advocate diversity in our books, those we read and those we recommend to others. I couldn’t pass up a story that sounded awesome ánd had diversity.
And Reign of the Fallen started out really strong. That first chapter in which Odessa and Evander meet Valoria is a great introduction into the world of Karthia and what it is our main characters do for a living. How they are regarded, what the stakes are and how they are connected to each other. The book stays on this path for a while, but soon after it starts showing cracks. The new friendship with Valoria disappears into the background for some time as we are introduced to two other necromancers. When we return to her, we have jumped to her being dear friends with Odessa. That while the other necromancers are said to be close friends and even somewhat like family, but they always seem to drop out of the story when they are not needed to further a plot. So while the relationship between Odessa and Evander was established fairly easily and with satisfying emotion behind it, there is great trouble in meaningfully connecting them to any of the other characters.
Here is where Reign of the Fallen fails mostly. Jax and Simeon are quickly joined by Danial, whose function in the group is unclear except as being a token gay lover to Simeon, and the medical deus ex machina they drag onto the page whenever Odessa needs serious healing (about three times in a as many chapters). His relationship with Simeon remains flat, except for him constantly worrying about the dangers Simeon is in. Which he never is, because every Shade seems to be really drawn to our main protagonist and everyone else drops off the page at that time. (Seriously, where does Simeon even live?) There is also no background story for Kasmira and Odessa’s friendship, which is strange considering how the first book ends and the second will continue.
There is a lot of special snowflake going on in Odessa. Everybody seems attracted to her, she is the absolute best necromancer and her employer favours her over all the others. She is like a daughter to her mentor. She comes from humble beginnings as an orphan and has trained hard to become the best because it is the only thing that she feels now defines her. In other words, Odessa is a bland protagonist of which we’ve seen dozens. The only time she truly shines through is in her absolute devastation over losing Evander. That actually did bring me to tears – the way her desperation and subsequent depression is written down.
But again, even this starts to show cracks. Reign of the Fallen is not so much about building a plot (finding out who is setting lose Shades and intending to destroy Karthia), as it is about putting Odessa front and center. That while there is much to be explored in the storyworld itself. The Deadlands, the Shades, even the instinctive fear for necromancers and subsequent racism as the country unravels. But once I let go of the idea that it was going to be plot-based, I wanted to embrace Odessa’s mental journey. However, I have real issues with how that is handled as well. At first I liked her losing herself in the dark pit of her grief and depression. Too often books glance over these aftermath issues, while Odessa continues to spiral down. Her addiction to mood suppressors and her ill-fated attempt to find bodily comfort in a self-destructing manner rang quite true.
But as her friends help her to start living her life again, she finds herself falling in love to get over Evander. By dating… his sister. I don’t even know where to begin with that. I found it very hard to believe that Odessa can find any kind of meaningful relationship with someone when it screams rebound, substitute and transference. It completely devaluated her gay relationship, because it substitutes for the straight relationship she lost. Meredy is the next best thing and Odessa latches on. But author Sarah Glenn Marsh tries to sell Meredy and Odessa as a real relationship, and that is where I DNF’d.
It brings me to the larger problem at hand: the other characters in Reign of the Fallen don’t get any sort of depth. Jax is as upset as Odessa about Evander, but we aren’t even told what their relationship was. How they met, what they did together (only that they have known each other even longer than Odessa). It is also a very convenient and out-of-the-way pairing, because Odessa and Simeon are said to be like brother and sister. There is no purpose to dividing the foursome up into these cross-pairings (Odessa/Evander and Simeon/Jax as partners, Odessa/Simeon and Evander/Jax in friendship), because there is never any conflict between them. Not even when the pairings are being completely shredded, fueled by the grief between Odessa and Jax. Simeon isn’t even present for any of that. And while we are on the subject, I can understand Jax’ physical attraction to Odessa at such a time, but I can’t understand why everyone else is hitting on a girl who has lost the love of her life mere days or weeks ago. Special snowflake syndrome, I assume.
It brings me to the example of Valoria. In the first chapter she has quite the traumatizing experience while in the company of Odessa and Evander. Despite that, however, Valoria remains unfazed and (off-page) becomes an instant friend to both. Considering that Odessa loses Evander almost immediately after that, and starts to spiral down, it is hard to understand why the author tries to keep enforcing the idea that Valoria is a dear friend to Odessa. There is just no build-up in that relationship, and based on the events they share, there really shouldn’t be one. If Valoria was madly in love with Odessa, I could understand why the princess keeps coming back, but she shows no signs of it. Considering that there is little to no subtility in characters’ emotions (Evander is over-the-top jealous of Hadrien, of whom even I know he has nothing to fear), I doubt Valoria was playing it close to the vest.
So in conclusion: there is a great idea, but it isn’t well worked out. The plot is unclear – is it about the Shade conspiracy threatening Karthia, or is it about a girl who must overcome her grief and who happens to live in a fantasy setting? The characters have multiple issues as well. Their motives are not explored and they fall flat because of it. The author takes shortcuts instead of taking time to develop meaningful relationships and thus we don’t care for other characters. Odessa is a special snowflake and it’s clear the others are just there to service her story. Evander was the only one Sarah Glenn Marsh invested in, and that was also done to make Odessa’s downfall have an impact. That worked, so obviously the author can do it.
I was not a fan of Reign of the Fallen. I think it has promise, but its issues severely outweighed that. I would have been persuaded to give three stars if either plot or characterisation were strong, but neither of them really are. I don’t know what story it is trying to tell. I can’t say I’m interested in reading the second book, but I have also seen reviews of people who don’t judge it as harshly as I do. It might be that you still like it enough to read it.