It's time for another spooky book review! This week, I'm reviewing Margaret Rogerson's latest release, Vespertine. What better subject for a Halloween read than a nun who spends her days around spirits and tending to the dead?
Genre: YA Dark Fantasy
Category: Cozy Read
Want to know more about how we categorize books? See our Lexicon for details.
RATING: 3.5/5 Stars
Plot: 3/5 stars
Characters: 3/5 stars
World: 4/5 stars
Artemisia is training to be a Gray Sister, a nun who cleanses the bodies of the deceased so that their souls can pass on; otherwise, they will rise as spirits with a ravenous hunger for the living. She'd rather deal with the dead than the living, who whisper about her scarred hands and troubled past.
When her convent is attacked by possessed soldiers, Artemisia defends it by awakening an ancient spirit bound to a saint’s relic. It is a revenant, a malevolent being that threatens to possess her the moment she drops her guard. Wielding its extraordinary power almost consumes her—but death has come to Loraille, and only a vespertine, a priestess trained to wield a high relic, has any chance of stopping it. With all knowledge of vespertines lost to time, Artemisia turns to the last remaining expert for help: the revenant itself.
As she unravels a sinister mystery of saints, secrets, and dark magic, her bond with the revenant grows. And when a hidden evil begins to surface, she discovers that facing this enemy might require her to betray everything she has been taught to believe—if the revenant doesn’t betray her first.
The protagonist, Artemisia, is a foundling raised in a female-dominated holy place, trained in their ways. She meets a gruff man of some standing, who she gets off on the wrong foot with. When the convent is attacked and an elder dies, she takes up something of theirs and runs into the fight, saving the day. Afterward, she is forced from the home she wants to stay in by the gruff man. There's also an intelligent white animal, an endearing “evil” character, and parallels between Sorcery of Thorns’ grimoires and Malefics and Vespertine’s spirits and Revenants.
I chugged along, hoping it would veer onto an original path. Thankfully, it did, but the similarities were so glaring, it felt like Rogerson was trying to ride off the success of her previous release rather than come up with something original. That said, it was still a fun, cozy read, and definitely scratched the itch that set in ever since her announcement of a Sorcery of Thorns follow-up novella.
This story speaks to trauma, the dark side of markets and churches, and how hunger for power can corrupt even the most innocent and well-intentioned. It touches on gender roles, the damage that deifying a person can do to their mentality, how influential figures can be used for consumerism, and the importance of taking care of yourself.
While I never felt especially attached to the characters, I didn't have anything against them and did like them.
Artemisia has some similarities to Elisabeth, but due to the traumas she endured (physically and psychologically) and her lack of friends, she is a bit more feral. An old injury left her hands badly scarred and took away some of their range of motion. She also suffers from near-crippling anxiety around people and in spaces that cause sensory overload.
She wasn't as kickass as Elisabeth––many of the badass moments were due to the revenant controlling her––but she had her strengths. I appreciated that she grew to trust and care for the revenant despite how she was raised, and that she was able to push out of her comfort zone at times. It's nice to see how people in similar situations can turn out differently based on their individual experiences.
The Revenant was an interesting character that reminded me of Silas. It’s supposed to be evil, and it is in some ways, but it’s also caring. Then there’s the fact that it has high standards for hygiene and living spaces. I liked its banter with Artemisia, its desire to try pastries, and how it taught Artemisia to take care of herself; to consider herself worthy of being cared for.
"You treat that beast better than you treat yourself," it commented sourly, watching Priestbane nose through the pile.
"He's a good horse. He carried me all day. He doesn't deserve to suffer because of the things I ask him to do."
"Have you ever considered that your body carries you?"
But what really sets this character apart is that 1) it is gender neutral, and 2) it doesn't have a physical manifestation; when it isn't trapped, it takes up residence inside Artemisia's body.
The revenant might be a monster, but it was my monster.
Then there's the suspicious priest and corrupt spiritual leader who have sad stories and endings. These characters aren't inherently evil, and I ended up feeling for them despite their actions.
There are a handful of supporting characters with their own special traits: a soldier who experienced a similar trauma to what Artemisia went through as a kid, whom she's able to connect with and help; a fellow nun from the convent who is very different from Artemisia (I appreciated their enemies-to-friends relationship, and her cleverness); and a grouchy but powerful elder who you can't help but adore.
My only complaint about the characters is that some of the names are very similar, which I thought was lazy. The two people closest to the priest are Gabriel and Gabrielle, who are not related. And two of the revenants' names are similar. But hey, maybe I'm just being nitpick-y.
Loraille isn't a vast world, but Rogerson's visuals are easy to imagine and get lost in. Some of the settings––cemeteries, underground tunnels, tombs, and an empty church––make for a dark, cozy vibe that's perfect for autumnal reading.
I also liked everything about the spirits: the way they're created, how they're used in the story to both help and harm, and how Artemisia's journey calls into question what people are taught about them. I wouldn't mind revisiting this world if there are later installments dealing with other revenants mentioned but not encountered in this story.
Vespertine isn't the most unique story; it has many parallels to Rogerson's Sorcery of Thorns, and I didn't love this one as I did the latter—but it was a fun, cozy read. It wasn't un-put-down-able, but I still enjoyed it. I felt for the characters and laughed aloud at the revenant's sarcasm. It kept me engaged, but it's not something that would go on my list of favorites. It was a solid read.
If you're a fan of Rogerson's other novels, or books with a cozy dark vibe, sarcastic banter, and romance-less fantasy (or just something that's different than most YA books), then I would recommend this book. I read the physical book, but I have heard people rave about the audiobook's narrator, so you may want to go that route. Either way, this book would be an easy read to cozy up to this fall.
Thanks for tuning into another review! If you have opinions to share, we'd love to hear from you. You can always reach us by commenting below, or by striking up a conversation on bookstagram or Twitter. Until next time!