Fantasy Detectives and an Ancient Mystery Cult: The Five Penalties Trilogy by Marina Lostetter

Fantasy Detectives and an Ancient Mystery Cult: The Five Penalties Trilogy by Marina Lostetter

The Helm of Midnight
and The Cage of Dark Hours
(Tor, April 2021 and February 2023). Covers by Sam Weber and Reiko Murakami

Marina Lostetter has had a heck of a career in just the last ten years. She started publishing in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show in 2012, and quickly followed up with sales to Galaxy’s Edge, Lightspeed, Daily Science Fiction, Shimmer, Uncanny Magazine, and many other fine outlets. Her first three novels, all part of the Noumenon space opera trilogy (published 2017-2020) won wide acclaim from major outlets (“Brilliant… the genre at its very best.” — Kirkus Reviews; “Lostetter remains at the forefront of innovation in hard science fiction.” — Publishers Weekly).

Last year Lostetter released her first fantasy novel, The Helm of Midnight, and five months later followed up with the aliens-vs-robots adventure Activation Degradation. She’s only published one book this year, The Cage of Dark Hours (sequel to Helm of Midnight, and the second book of The Five Penalties trilogy), but it’s still early.

[Click the images for penalty-free versions.]

Back covers for The Helm of Midnight and The Cage of Dark Hours

The Helm of Midnight is my favorite kind of fantasy. Like Fritz Leiber’s tales of Lankhmar and Robert Asprin’s legendary Thieves World saga, it’s a tale of intrigue and dark dealings in a intricately designed fantastical city.

Publishers Weekly called it a blend of “fantasy with quasi-procedural detective work.”

Krona, a young Regulator, is assigned to guard a collection of enchanted artifacts on display at a celebration for the chief magistrate of Lutador. But when a monstrous varg attacks the event, the assault draws Krona’s attention long enough for two especially dangerous items to be stolen from the exhibit: a regulated despairstone brooch and executed serial killer Louis Charbon’s death mask. Determined to prove herself to her sister and superior, De-Lia, Krona resolves to catch the thieves and retrieve the items. But soon corpses begin to pile up throughout the city-state, suggesting that she’s got a Louis Charbon copycat killer on her hands. Lostetter intersperses Krona’s hunt for the killer with backstories involving Melanie Depont, a woman searching for a cure for her dying mother, and Louis Charbon himself, who was a legitimate surgeon before getting caught up in a sinister religious plot.

Every Book a Doorway has a fine review of the second volume.

This series reads like the progression of a would-be initiate into an ancient mystery cult; there are layers within layers, circles within circles, and every step towards the centre comes with new revelations. Having made our way through Helm, Cage initiates us into the deeper mysteries of Lostetter’s world – but this secret knowledge raises as many new questions as it answers; far from filling in all the gaps, Cage reveals to us a vastly larger world than we were led to believe existed….

If we think of the world of the Five Penalties as a skeleton, then the bones of the truth are buried under the skin that is – for lack of a I’m in complete awe at this entire structure; not just the sheer uniqueness of the world Lostetter has created (although that delights and confounds me endlessly) but the world she’s built on top of that, and how well both fit together. She’s crafted this literally epic – in scale and scope and sheer awesomeness – conspiracy, made it virtually seamless, and made sure there’s no way we’ll ever guess what’s really behind the curtain.

Activation Degradation
by Marina Lostetter (Harper Voyager, September 2021)

Here’s the complete publishing details.

The Helm of Midnight (451 pages, $26.99 in hardcover/$19.99 paperback/$13.99 digital, April 13, 2021)
The Cage of Dark Hours (464 pages, $28.99 in hardcover/$14.99 digital, February 14, 2023)

See all our coverage of the best new fantasy series here.

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