In 1890s London, Ren sticks her hand down a dying man’s throat and rips out his soul.
Ren is a Reaper, a servant of the English god of Death, tasked with collecting the souls of Londoners and carrying them, in fragile glass vials, back to her master. But Ren is different from the other Reapers in one unforgivable way. Reapers are English, like the humans they manage; they stay to themselves, marrying and having children only within their ranks. Ren’s mother, however, is a Shinigami — a servant of the Japanese goddess of Death. Ren is ostracized and terrorized for her black hair and black eyes, which prove to the other Reapers that she’s not truly one of them (even if her father is a high-ranking English Reaper). When it’s discovered that she has the telltale powers over light that all Shinigami do, in addition to a Reaper’s powers over time, she has no choice but to flee London’s underworld. With her beloved half-brother in tow, she travels across the continents to begin a new life as a Japanese Shinigami.
Written by Kylie Lee Baker, “The Keeper of the Night” tells the story of a girl caught between countries and cultures. She is never treated as an equal in London because she lacks the fair hair and eyes that symbolize the Reapers’ status as superior beings. Moreover, there is constant gossip about her mother, a scandal that her father tries desperately to put behind him by taking an English wife and having a fully English child. Even her name becomes a battleground of identity — the Japanese “Ren” her mother named her versus the English “Wren” everyone calls her. Ren longs for a home she has never known, learning Japanese from library books in secret and collecting photos of Japan’s cities.
Yet when she finally arrives at Japan’s shores, she feels just as much of an outsider as always. She doesn’t know which creatures of legend are real and which exist only in stories. She doesn’t know how to find her fellow Shinigami, let alone her mother. She doesn’t know how to tell the difference between friend and foe. While she may share their physical features, the Shinigami mock her clunky Japanese and consider her to be nothing more than a Reaper who happens to have a Shinigami mother. Confronted with the prospect of being left without a nation and without a people, Ren decides she will do anything, anything, to prove that she belongs.
This exploration of identity and kinship helps ground the more magical elements of the story. There’s a lot in here that could be considered fantasy fluff — a play-by-play of Ren meeting and figuring out how to defeat various mythological foes, a graphic description of how Shinigamis capture human souls, et cetera. It’s fun, to be sure, but it doesn’t carry much substance on its own. Through discussions of xenophobia, alienation and the complicated mess that is family relationships, Baker adds another layer to this fantasy novel. Instead of ignoring them, Baker critiques the unjust prejudices of the real world while intertwining them with fantastical elements of legend and myth.
Ren’s half-brother, Neven, plays a crucial role in this narrative. He’s the one person in Ren’s life who isn’t ashamed of her. He gives up his own life of comfort and his guaranteed future to run away with her, while her father is selling her out to the higher-ups and her mother is somewhere unreachable on the other side of the world. He suffers a bit from “Prim Everdeen” syndrome (characterized only as the gentle, loyal younger sibling who would never hurt a fly and is too softhearted for their own good), but his presence creates both tension and comfort to illuminate Ren’s more complicated character. Just as the portrayal of mixed-race identity helps us to not get lost in a world of supernatural action and romance, so too does the portrayal of siblings who have to rely on each other because they have no one else.
“The Keeper of the Night” is a fun, quick fantasy read with a premise interesting enough to set it apart (after all, how often does a book start with the main character extracting someone’s soul?). But it’s given real substance by its genuine portrayals of identity, family and the desperation to belong.
Daily Arts Writer Brenna Goss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.