You know, sometimes the descriptions of books can be super deceiving. I picked up a copy of The Keeper of Night out of my own curiosity and the funny part is that it became another favorite read of 2022. I needed to take my time reading this one because my mental health hasn’t been the greatest lately, but this book helped me escape my brain for a little while and that’s always a plus.
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 the acceptance she’s never gotten from her fellow Reapers. Accompanied by her younger brother, the only being on earth to care for her, 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.
I was honestly surprised by how much I loved this book. I thought it was going to be your average YA fantasy novel with a Japanese twist, but the details of Japanese folklore/mythology, the usage of “reapers” and “shinigami” and the morality of taking someone’s life, it all came together to create an incredible story deeply rich with themes of morality, empathy, and understanding what is the “good” thing to do and what is the “right” thing to do.
I love the complexity of the characters. Learning that Ren is half-English/half-Japanese and her struggle to fit into either world is something that I resonate deeply with. While I’m not biracial, I’ve had a different experience growing up in the US with a more American mother and a very Korean father. The experience left me straddled between two worlds that I haven’t yet found comfort in. And reading Ren’s story made me feel like I’m not the only person who is struggling with this. I can only imagine how that makes folks who do identify as biracial will feel.
Neven is also an incredible character that while did get in the way of Ren’s plans every now and again, his morality and his strength to stand up for himself despite being a bit shy and nervous about being a reaper just felt so poignant next to Ren. I hope I’m describing this well, but I saw Neven as more than just that annoying brother that gets in the way of things. I saw him as Ren’s better half who always made sure to keep her in check.
The other part that I truly loved about this book was the Japanese folklore. While their time in England was brief (and I’m actually wondering if we will ever go back to that part of the book), the world in Japan was filled with dark creatures, monsters, and demons that if you’re a fan of horror, you’ll actually really enjoy. I loved seeing the different mythologies play out in this book and the plot was very linear, so you can easily follow along with Ren as she completed her task to become a full-fledge shinigami.
I think the most intriguing part of this whole story is how Ren manages her insecurities as a reaper and a shinigami, her internal struggle with being “evil,” her brother, Neven, who acts more like her morality, and the massive divide any person may feel when thrown into two cultures you’re not wholly a part of, but really want to be. Ren reminded me in more ways than one like Doctor Who. While she isn’t an alien from another planet, her sense of morality is really thrown off and it’s people like her brother that always need to remind her about empathy and seeing beyond the task at hand at the humanity of a person. It was interesting to see Ren battle these two sides of her morality and this is one of the biggest aspects I’m looking forward to reading more about in her next book.
I will admit that I was very surprised by the ending, but after some reflection, I kind of see where the author is going as well. Some of the ending I definitely guessed, but the rest was just a shock to me. But thinking about it, I realize that Kylie Lee Baker is playing around with a bigger question of power and acceptance. I honestly can’t wait for the next book because I have this feeling it will reveal much more about Ren that we didn’t know before, see her down to her truest sense, and I wonder what will happen with her brother.