The first installment of author Kylie Lee Baker’s dark fantasy duology, “The Keeper of Night,” is a captivating, harrowing venture into the vivid world of the dead. Released Oct. 12, the novel follows Ren Scarborough — a half-Reaper, half-Shinigami collector of souls — as she struggles with the two halves of her identity, neither of which she believes truly makes up her whole self. Along with her half-brother Neven as well as a mysterious underworld stranger, Ren must kill three fearsome demons after fleeing to Japan, as she vyes for a place in the court of Japan’s Goddess of Death, Izanami.
From the start, Ren is a morally gray and impressively flawed character, her flaws only intensifying as her antagonists continue to instigate her. With Neven as the only voice of reason at her side, Ren finds herself lured by the possibility of becoming a full Shinigami, sacrificing those she loves in the process. The loss and devastation she feels give way to a deep sense of insecurity, which in turn fuels her fury. Her anger manifests itself in jarring ways that demonstrate how Ren is literally not a human, yet helplessly so in other aspects. As Ren justifies her feelings, Baker’s writing makes sure that there is a tug of war with the reader’s own morals as well.
A central theme across the novel is Ren’s struggle with the duality of her identity. Never quite fitting in as a British Reaper nor a Japanese Shinigami, she is imbued with a sense of inferiority. Ren is rather quick to leave behind her Reaper past, if not for her brother and her Reaper ability to control time. However, the two identities and worlds still clash in her mind, a conflict that’s beautifully drawn out by Baker’s stunning prose, particularly through Ren’s innermost thoughts.
Baker constantly goes back and forth between the plot and Ren’s thoughts, an interesting mix of contextual details and reflective tidings. The author makes it easy to get lost in Ren’s endless array of contemplations as if readers themselves are her, inside her constantly churning mind, before being ripped back to the present.
While the first few chapters are like a whirlwind, packed with fast-moving plot details that the reader must sort out, the rest of the book smoothly travels through Ren’s journey across Japan — there is never a dull moment. At some points, Ren’s flurry of thoughts tends to slow down the pacing a bit more than is necessary to effectively convey her point, but the sacrifice is worth it to gain a clearer look into her mind. The pacing, however, does speed up considerably in the last few chapters, yet has the desired effect of shock and unease.
Where “The Keeper of Night” excels most strongly is through Baker’s ability to transform normal, even pretty things into grotesque visual imagery. Baker’s high level of descriptive detail crafts not only an impeccable world, but also mood for the book that makes the Japanese folklore woven throughout that much more mesmerizing. She animates the world of Yomi, the Japanese afterlife, with an unsettling sadness, rage and desire (as well as increasingly striking gore) through Ren’s eyes. And, most impressively, despite a majority of the book set in utter darkness, Baker somehow manages to describe what’s there in the pitch-black as if it were in stark daytime. Readers can see what Ren sees, feel what she feels and hear with utmost discomfort what she hears — and the sounds of the dead are not pleasant to the ears.
Through vividly poetic descriptions, Baker finds a way to personify death, rendering it no longer an abstract concept but a fully tangible, terrifying being capable of strangely human qualities. “The Keeper of Night” is equally ethereal and chilling as the author cleverly breathes life into the creatures that take human souls.