In the city of Bhai Mandwa, towers of steel and glass reach for the sky while boiler-cars roll along streets that are inhabited by gangsters, demonic assassins, inept policemen and wandering ghosts. More than a million people call the city home, one in the midst of an industrial revolution, torn between the traditions of the old world and a new, frightening future. Below, the Genja River flows, waters possessed by spirits and magic from ancient times.
Prem Marantha, third of four royal sisters, was kidnapped and trained to kill as a child. Upon returning home after her long absence, she discovers that her parents are dead and her youngest sister has taken the throne. Now Prem must find out how to evade an assassin’s plot, elude the unwanted attention of the ruling Parliament and the police force it controls, and stop a conspiracy planning to overthrow the monarchy for good.
The Way of Mortals is a steampunk fantasy novel with a compelling blend of intrigue, unique magic, and fantastic worldbuilding.
The story focuses around the 4 Marantha sisters, princesses of the throne of Jaira. Their parents have recently passed away and the youngest of the four, Priya, is set to take the throne, but an assassination plot is discovered and they must find and stop the conspiracy before Priya is killed. Though all 4 sisters are plenty involved, our main protagonist is Prem. As a child, Prem was possessed by a river demon and disappeared. She spent the previous 10 years as an assassin until the news of her parents’ death gave her the strength to take control back from the demon and return home.
This strange situation creates some of the best character moments of the book. Prem’s sisters immediately welcome her back with open arms, but she has been gone for 10 years and was a child when she was taken, so there’s an inevitable distance that’s grown between them in that time. Not to mention that she now has a demon inside her and spent those 10 years killing people for money. Carpenter does a great job of portraying family dynamics with the four sisters. In the beginning of the book, Prem’s sisters each try to show their love in different ways, but also walk on eggshells around her, while Prem just wants to be treated like she isn’t broken. This leads to some clashing between all of them but throughout it all you could feel the love they had for each other. It was wonderful to see them grow closer over the course of the novel as they come to terms with the new versions of each other. Another aspect I enjoyed of the sisters was how different they were from each other. They didn’t feel like slightly varied copies of each other like siblings sometimes do in other novels. They had distinct personalities that served the different roles that had chosen to take as members of the royal family.
The intrigue of the novel was definitely one of the highlights for me. As mentioned, there is an assassination plot they are trying to uncover, and Prem is especially involved, using her training and magical abilities to root out the source of the conspiracy. There is an added layer in that the country is a form of parliamentary monarchy, and there is no love lost between Parliament and the royal family. They even have so much as separate police forces. The sisters have their work cut out for them trying to figure out if the plot is being orchestrated by the criminal underground or within their own government, and this plot is among the best written intrigue I have read in a fantasy novel.
The worldbuilding in The Way of Mortals is next level, especially for the relatively short length of the novel. The story takes place completely within the capital city of Bhai Mandwa, and is an Indian inspired steampunk setting. You can really tell the author did his research and knows his world, but he never overdoes it with the exposition. You get the details as you need them, and rarely more than that. So in spite of what I am sure is a vast world, the writing is tight and you are never overwhelmed. I am very excited to see more of this world in future books in the series though. On a related note, I loved the magic in this book. As noted earlier, Prem was possessed by a river demon, which means she has to contend with him for control, but also gives her water related magical abilities. We see other characters possessed by other types of demons, as well as characters with spirit companions, and those who can talk to and petition spirits to grant them favors. It seems like most, if not all, of the magic in the world is related to the various types of spirits, which I really enjoyed.
All in all this was a very enjoyable and fairly quick read, though packed with action and intrigue. I highly recommend picking up this novel and look forward to future books in this series.