Vespertine by Margaret Rogerson follows Artemisia, a Gray Sister, who works preparing the deceased for burial. In her world, the dead not given burial rites rise as spirits bent on consuming the living. It’s a job that most nuns only spend a few years doing before being promoted, but Artemisia would like to stay in her role. It’s important work and it gives her reason to avoid people as they ask too many questions and are too taxing to be around.
However, something is changing. Her covenant is attacked by possessed soldiers and Artemisia must face that maybe she’s destined for more and not like everyone else. During the attack, Artemisia turns to a saint’s relic, which contains a bound malicious spirit known as a revenant. Only the revenant is much stronger than she anticipates and it possesses her almost causing her to lose herself, however, she prevails. Artemisia must become a vespertine, a high priestess who can wield a high relic; however, all vespertines have been lost to time and there’s no one to train her. In a moment of desperation, she and the revenant form a shaky truce to help stop the evil that’s spreading across the world.
Rogerson is known for her rich story-telling and while Vespertine deviates from her other books in feel, her storytelling ability remains the same. She creates another immersive and well-plotted story with amazing pacing from start to finish. Vespertine is rather dark and has a serious undertone, whereas a lot of new YA fantasy is written in a light-hearted tone with lots of character-driven banter. While this book is comped as Joan of Arc meets Venom, a good comparison in terms of feel, storytelling, and fantasy elements is Garth Nix’s Sabriel.
The revenant and Artemisia’s dynamic is the highlight of the book. Artemisia has struggled her whole life with forming connections with others but connects with the revenant almost instantly. Their precarious truce and relationship are often rife with mistrust that must be overcome to be successful and while they are in their very nature on opposite ends of the battlefields, they find that their agendas can both benefit from the others’ help. Without cooperation neither can be successful. To reference Sabriel again, the revenant is very reminiscent of Mogget.
This book includes some representation of social anxiety, PTSD, as well as physical disability. It is mentioned throughout the book how Artemisia is very uncomfortable in social situations and prefers to surround herself with the dead instead. In addition to her anxiety, Artemisia was severely burned as a child, resulting in burns on her hands leaving them severely damaged and she struggles to use them. She also has PTSD resulting from the event in which she was burned. While these characteristics make it intimidating for her to form friendships, she does realize that she must rely on others and form bonds to be successful on her quest despite her discomfort. Artemisia’s character growth comes from her not only growing into her role as a vespertine but in her growth as a person and opening up to others, something that can be extremely intimidating for everyone.
Vespertine is a strong debut of a new series and one of our favorite reads of 2021!