Margaret Rogerson’s Vespertine is the fantasy must-read of the Fall

Vespertine by Margaret Rogerson. Image courtesy Simon & Schuster
Vespertine by Margaret Rogerson. Image courtesy Simon & Schuster /

Margaret Rogerson has rapidly become a buzzy name in the world of YA fantasy, though her latest novel, Vespertine, is just her third book. Her previous novels, An Enchantment of Ravens and Sorcery of Thorns are both fantastic reads in their own rights, with complex heroines, rich world-building, and unconventional plots. But Vespertine is far and away Rogerson’s best work yet, a dark coming-of-age adventure about faith, belief, and morality in many forms. It’s one of the best books you’ll read this fall – and probably in all of 2021.

Set in the kingdom of Loraille, the story follows 17-year-old Artemisia of Naimes, a novice at a convent of the Gray Sisters. Since an event known as “The Sorrow,” the dead can no longer pass peacefully from the world and require specific rituals to keep their spirits from rising to plague the living. (The book describes a complex hierarchy of spirits and their powers, which – other than the seven major revenants – are all generally connected to the ways they died.)

Those gifted with the Sight can both see spirits and be possessed by them. However, these abilities also mean that Sighted individuals can learn to wield relics of varying power, depending on the souls or spirits they contain. Possessed by an ashgrim – a spirit who died by fire – as a child and suffering from severe social anxiety, Artemisia wants nothing more than to be allowed to remain cloistered a full-fledged Gray Sister, doing the will of the Lady whose service they have all sworn themsevles to follow.

But when her convent is attacked by a squadron of possessed soldiers, Artemisa unseals a legendary high relic in a desperate attempt to save her home. In doing so, she binds herself to the powerful revenant trapped inside, a fifth order spirit of almost unimaginable power. Untrained in the use of these objects, struggling to control the revenant, and unsure of who to trust, she makes a potentially deadly bargain with the creature – one that may ultimately destroy her life.

Heading toward the city of Bonsaint in an attempt to figure out the source of the Old Magic that seems to be increasingly animating the dead, Artemisia and the revenant will forge a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship even as they betray and keep secrets from one another.The prickly almost-friendship that develops between the two is a highlight of the book, as is the way it changes and deepens as both discover that some of their preexisting assumptions about who the other is and what they want are forced to change.

As Artemisa continues to perform a series of heroic deeds (often against her better judgment), her legend begins to grow – as a vespertine (a woman who commands a high relic), as a hero, and as a sign that the Lady will not allow darkness to prevail over the land. But as she comes closer to discovering the secrets hiding in the highest echelon of the Clerisy she’s been raised to serve, she’ll have to decide what – and who – she really believes in.

The world building of Vespertine is thrilling and complex, a grim and fascinating world reminiscent of late-medieval France that’s populated with multi-faceted characters who refuse simple labels like “good” or “evil”. Those we assume to be Artemesia’s enemies are not always so in fact, and even those that are working towards different goals are motivated by much more complicated factors than they initially appear to be.

The messy history of Loraille is rich and vaired: From the tragedy of the Raven King and the Sorrow his actions brought about to the lives of the women now remembered as high saints who sacrificed themselves to save their world and are now remembered as little more than body parts (or ashes, in one important instance) and the people the Clerisy has decided they should have been, rather than who they were. I would have happily read more details about these women, or the seven revenants they both bound and battled. (The names alone, y’all.)

Vespertine is the start of Rogerson’s first-ever duology and its ending – which is both satisfying in its own right and opens the story’s world up in enticing ways – will leave you thrilled that this is a story that will continue. I wasn’t ready to leave this world behind completely yet – and I suspect most readers won’t be either.

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Vespertine is available now.