Genre(s): Fantasy, Historical Fantasy, Urban Fantasy
Series: Los Nefilim
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Release date: June 14th, 2016
/r/Fantasy Bingo Squares: Disability (HM), Novella (HM), Twins, Vampires
‘He was daimon, a creature borne of the darkness, his soul made of dreams earthy-sweet and whispers in the night. Yet he was also angel, filled with fire and stardust and eternal light. He was a thousand contradictions, bound to the clay and water of the flesh, but that was his magic, the spell that was his to weave.’
So nice I reviewed it TWICE! This was my second time reading this novella collection, and I have to say: it absolutely lived up to every wonderful memory of my first read. There were many small flourishes and touches that passed me by the first time, and it was a joy and a pleasure to notice and appreciate them this go around. Although I initially planned to read and review Where Oblivion Lives, the first full Los Nefilim novel, for October, I decided to push it into November to allow for another read of the novellas. Keep an eye out for my review of Where Oblivion Lives sometime mid November… and an ARC review of the second Los Nefilim novel, Carved from Stone and Dream, in January!
My first Los Nefilim review can be read in its unedited form here. Below is a new edition of this review featuring new quotes, new thoughts, and a more in-depth analysis of the themes and writing.
Up until I read Los Nefilim, I had never considered myself a fan of urban or historical fantasy. I’ve read and enjoyed a couple one-offs like The Golem and the Jinni, sure, but it was never a genre I actively sought out. Reading this book gave me a full-blown identity crisis. I utterly ADORED these novellas. I ate them up. They were wonderful. I loved the setting, I loved the characters, I loved the writing! I suddenly had to reevaluate just what it was I loved about the fantasy genre as a whole. At the end of the day, I realized, I’m much more engaged with how fantasy is used to augment and alter a setting and less with whether the book contains elements based on reality. Books like The Poppy War mirror reality and heavily borrow on history – is that truly so different from “true” historical fantasy? Is it right to draw the line in the sand at, “well, it’s not REALITY because the names are different!”? At one point, I might well have stood by that line. No longer.
Los Nefilim is an omnibus of three novellas, all set in 1930s Spain. Each novella is a piece of the overall story, and feel more like “parts” than they do independent stories. Los Nefilim has the distinct feel and structure of a novel to it. Although it technically falls under historical fantasy due to this timeline, it has a distinctly urban fantasy feel due to how it incorporates city life and the interplay between the magical and the mundane. It includes In Midnight’s Silence, Without Light or Guide, and The Second Death. In the Los Nefilim universe, angels and demons have waged war for centuries using their offspring, nefilim, as foot soldiers. Diago Alvarez, a unique nefil of both angelic and demonic descent, is drawn into their war against his will. In order to save his son, he joins Los Nephilim – an order of nefil dedicated to serving the angels. Diago soon finds that the fate of not only Spain, but that of the world may be at stake. While this book is based on Christian lore, this is not a “religious” novel any moreso than most books based on Greek mythology are. It’s an incredibly creative take on how angels vs demons might play out, with multiple factions on either side vying for power.
‘To any human who happened to glance at him, he appeared as a beautiful man with long silver hair pulled into ponytail that cascaded down his back. A closer look revealed that he had only four fingers on each hand. Safe within his lair, he made no attempt to hide his feet, which resembled the clawed talons of a raptor. Thick fur covered his ankles and disappeared beneath the seams of his pants. The eyes were the worst. Great crimson orbs shot through with streams of silver. He possessed no pupils, no whites.’
The magic of the nefilim is music-based, which we don’t see nearly enough of in fantasy. The nefilim are able to form sigils by harmonizing individually and with one another, which can be used to influence mortals, create dramatic physical effects, and a variety of other things. Angels, who have three sets of vocal chords, are able to create significantly more powerful and dramatic effects. It’s a bit nebulous and has a feel of the fantastic to it; it’s uncertain just what their magic might be capable of. I enjoyed having this bit of mystery; while I do enjoy hard magic a la Sanderson, it’s a joy to have a well-done soft magic system with explanation but not necessarily limitation. Watching the nefilim and angels interact with and use their magic on mortals and the mortal world is both incredibly interesting and exemplifies the best characteristics of urban fantasy.
The story behind why Frohock chose this particular magic system is even better, in my opinion. Frohock is deaf, although she did not begin to lose her hearing until around the age of 12. When asked about her magic system in one of the r/fantasy hosted AMAs, she cites the descriptions of angelic voices in religious texts. This, in conjunction with having run across an article on chromesthesia (the ability to “see” sound as color – this is a subset of synesthesia) formed the foundation of her system. As an adult, one of the things she misses most is being able to listen to music. I highly encourage a glance at her AMA for additional information!
Diago Alvarez, our protagonist, is the character who made this book a particular favorite. While it still would have been well done without him, the delicacy with which he’s written is bar-none. In an era long before LGBT+ rights exist, Diago is a bisexual young man with a gay partner. Although they cannot legally marry given the laws and social customs at the time, both wear rings as symbols of their commitment to one another. Their romance is both endearing and heartwarming; it’s not about them being two gay/bi men together, it’s about them being partners.
Diago at one point experienced being raped by an angel, and his emotions along with Miquel’s response felt genuine and true to life. As someone who at one point was a victim of sexual abuse, I think it’s so, so important to have examples such as this for victims to contextualize their experiences. Not everyone has a flight or fight response – some people get stuck with freeze or fawn (the two lesser-known “F” responses). Seeing the fawn response in media with an explanation of the manipulation that went along with it both broke my heart even as I was thrilled to see it. When Candela took advantage of Diago, his emotional defense was to pretend it was all right, to fawn over Candela, to attempt to make her happy both due to the magic she used on him and as a method of making what was happening to him “okay.” I dearly wished I’d read this back when my own wounds were still fresh and I was blaming myself; I think reading about Diago would have helped me to accept myself and my actions much sooner if I had. This is definitely one of my own ‘pet’ issues, if you will, so books that do this well tend to immediately jump up in my estimation.
‘Humiliation flushed his cheeks. He clenched the brass case in a white-knuckled grip. For days he had submitted to her attentions, and done all that she asked without question. He recalled the smell of the carnations she kept by her bed, the odor of rotten wood, and the sharp hard scent of tin. And then, one morning, she was gone. The little yellow snake lay dead on the windowsill, and Candela had disappeared as if she had never lived. Too late, Diago realized the serpent had been an enchantment. When Candela had achieved all that she desired, the spell broke, and the snake had died. She had made a fool of him. Ashamed of his culpability, he had never spoken of the tryst, not with Guillermo, and especially not to Miquel. Such a betrayal would have broken his heart. How did one explain an allure such as Candela’s, one that made Diago go against his very nature? The truth was complicated, and he had no faith in his ability to convey the misery he’d felt when he realized what he’d done. So he had hidden his sin behind lies of omission, because lies were easier.’
Miquel, upon learning about Candela, is first dubious – this happened while they were together. He is concerned that Diago had an affair. As it becomes clear that Diago was not a willing participant in this and never had an opportunity to stop it or so no, Miquel’s conflicted emotions focus in and become pure anger. Rage that an angel would do this to his partner, and anger that Diago must now carry this burden forever. Miquel does everything he can to support Diago and help him move through this realization – he is such a wonderful, healthy representation of how to support a partner during a time of trauma. He does not push, but he nudges, he supports, he provides the ballast and structure Diago needs even as they face yet another challenge in this already difficult time: Diago wasn’t merely raped. He was also forced to father a son.
‘“Is that true?” he asked. “Are you my papa?” Diago brushed a curl from the child’s eyelashes. The hope in Rafael’s eyes tore Diago’s heart.’
The two come together immediately to support the child, Rafael. Their interactions with him are just the cutest thing. They have an ongoing joke about being a family of bears that just makes me melt. Rafael happily accepts the affection of his two fathers – he’s more concerned about whether they’ll let him have that adorable kitten he wants than he is about them both being men. Rafael is an absolute sweetie. He also plays an integral role in the plot, and even has several point of view chapters when he is separated from his papas. It’s unusual to see children have such a major role within a book’s plot or to see parenting be brought to the forefront, and this is an especially good representation of both these things. Despite the abuse he’s suffered, Rafael has a pure, good soul – and hopes desperately for love and acceptance from his new family. He struggles with the coping mechanisms he’s had to learn in the past, and slowly develops new, healthier methods of relating to those around him. No longer must he fear beatings, no longer does he need to have a lie or excuse ready at hand. Diago and Miquel love him as he should be loved, and with that comes support and trust.
‘Instead of pulling away, Miquel hugged Rafael a little tighter. “I’m all right.” That was a grownup lie, like when Sister Benita said that she would forgive Rafael as long as he told the truth, but then punished him anyway. The only difference was that Rafael knew Miquel wasn’t trying to trick him, so he nodded even though he could see that Miquel wasn’t all right.’
And on a final note, the prose! Prosey books are my absolute favorites, and Frohock’s writing is simply stunning. It’s hard to say exactly how she manages it, but something about her sentence structures simply evoke the essence of Spain and the Spanish language. Perhaps it’s the word choice? Perhaps it’s all in the phrasing? In any case, it makes the world come alive in a way that mere descriptions could not manage. She sprinkles in a few Spanish phrases (fear not, for they are translated in the text… no need to have Google Translate handy) that are the cherry on top, cinching the already tight prose into an even more seamless result.
I’d be hard pressed to point to a single thing I disliked in any of these novellas. T. Frohock has created an outstanding world with even better characters. This book is one that’s filled with good, genuine people who all do their best to stand by one another even in impossible circumstances. I would recommend it to absolutely anyone.
Recommended for fans of:
- The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wrecker
- The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
- Our Bloody Pearl by D. N. Bryn
Have you read this book? What did you think? Do you have any questions about it?
Let me know in the comments below!