REVIEW: THRICE (NEEDLE AND LEAF BOOK 1)
I've been hearing so much about this book and have really enjoyed the author's interactions with the bookish community, so I was very excited to finally get into this short fantasy adventure.
HOW I RATED IT
5/5 THRICE isn't a book that does anything earthshattering over the course of it's modest page count, but the endearing characters, fast pace, and beautiful Slavic-inspired world made this a new favorite of mine.
This story follows Jovan, a hot-tempered needle maker, and his adopted son, Leaf, who might be the most precious character I have ever had the pleasure of getting to know in a fantasy book. The father-son relationship between these two characters is immediately heartwarming. I loved how Leaf brings out the softer and more optimistic side of Jovan while Jovan goes to great lengths to keep the boy safe from those who seek him out. There's a fair bit of mystery surrounding Leaf's birth and why he his magical powers are so different from those of other magic-users in the world which served as a nice narrative hook and brought some fun intrigue to his character. As the pair adventure across the lands, they meet lots of fascinating side characters. At first, a lot of these seemed like they would be throwaway figures that would offer interesting interactions only to then disappear forever after Jovan and Leaf parted ways with them. I was thrilled to find out that this was actually not the case for really anyone that was introduced and loved how so many of the characters, no matter how seemingly unimportant they were at first, ended up factoring into the plot shomehow. Mamm Kallidova. The Bear, and Slant were particular standouts for me, but realistically, there weren't any characters that I didn't enjoy (even if they were nasty little buggers).
Things begin rather rapidly with a hectic prologue followed by an opening chapter that wastes no time in introducing our main characters and beginning their journey. As someone who favors shorter books with faster pacing, I really appreciated how things played out here. I also enjoyed how the story kind of alternates between journeying through the wilderness and spending time in the different towns/cities within this corner of the world. I also loved the sense of mystery and wonder that came with gaining bits of information about the characters, the religions/mythology, the settlements, and the secrets of Leaf's origins. It's all kept relatively simple and clean, but there were definitely some fun surprises along the way. Even twists that I saw coming ended up playing out in some interesting ways. The last fifty or so pages absolutely kicked things into overdrive with tons of drama, big reveals, and magic-infused action that was even more intense than I was expecting. Some readers may be a little bothered that things wrap up as quickly as they started, but I actually loved the ending in that I found it satisfying, but it also left me wondering what will come next.
One thing I've heard said about this book that I have to agree with is that there is a sort of "coziness/comfiness" to this story even though it is far to violent to be considered part of the "cozy fantasy subgenre." I think a lot of this might come from the endearing bond that Jovan an Leaf share, some of it might be the small-scale setting (the whole story takes place within one corner of this world), and I feel like another big part of it is how there is an overarching sense of optimism in this story in terms of how the characters are represented. Plenty of the side characters are shady, shifty, and self-centered, but they're usually decent people at their core. I really appreciated that no one (aside from maybe a couple of the key antagonists) are deliberately evil or go out of their way to inflict harm upon someone else. These are characters that don't always do the right thing, but they generally want to live a good life and have meaningful connections with others. This flawed sincerity made these characters feel so distinctly human, even though their character development is handled quickly and often in short bursts over the course of the story.
There isn't anything too crazy going on in this world when it comes to geography, politics, or magical creatures. At it's core, this is a world inspired by Slavic folklore and I definitely felt like that muse came through strongly. The terrain is varied and the weather plays a big role in the journey which gave the story a rather grounded feel. In contrast to the realism of having to walk long distances in a temperamental climate, there are some delightful flourishes of mythology. At one point, Jovan and another character have to fight a truly horrifying creature from folklore and there are lots of references to six gods that form the core of different religions that people follow. The way that religion plays a part in the story and world is something I greatly enjoyed. I feel like it's all too often that a fantasy religion is essentially just a caricature of Christianity with many/all of it's followers being psychotic zealots. In the world of THRICE, the religions not only feel fresh and original, but also serve as an interesting layer to the different cultures that the characters come across. Jovan himself is revealed to be a member of one of the faiths and a lot of the side characters also belong to one religion or another. It was such a neat idea to make each one revolve around the same set of gods even though the belief systems were distinctly different. Magic is another element that I found rather delightful. The systems themselves felt like they were on the "softer" side of things, but it's possible that they will become "harder" in future books. In spite of the softness of the rules that govern things, I found it fascinating that the magic still managed to have rather clear limits. The way it is explained and the ways in which Leaf's abilities fly in the face of those mechanics were so much fun to read about.
The landscape itself is also a treat to explore. I loved the wooded areas that Leaf and Jovan travel through and the interesting spots that they found to rest just as much as the bustling cobblestone cities or smaller settlements that the pair take up temporary residence in. This isn't the most exotic fantasy setting I've ever seen, but it just nails all the basics of what makes for a compelling setting and I found myself constantly referencing the map to follow along with where we were at any given moment even though I normally don't care much for fantasy maps at all.
The new cover for this book is really lovely and I am a big fan of its vibrant color scheme. The fonts and iconography are also great. I've already mentioned that the map grabbed me a lot more than maps usually do even though I don't think there's anything super fancy going on with this one. One petty complaint I have is that I thought the interior margins were a little stingy. I've definitely seen much worse and the text is fully readable, I just had to pull the book apart slightly wider than I normally like to (I did not have to break the spine or anything, just to be clear). Other than that, this was very nicely formatted and I greatly enjoyed flipping through these pages.
If you like quick fantasy reads that have lots of fun narrative turns, then THRICE is an absolute must read. Even those that generally enjoy grander, chunkier fantasy novels will likely enjoy this as a pallet cleanser between bigger books. I would even go so far as to say that this might make for a nice entry point for those who don't normally read fantasy at all.
(+) The story does not waste any time getting going or meaner at all along the way
(+) Leaf is absolutely precious
(+) Fantastic and sometimes heartwarming character interactions
(+) Fun action scenes with a interesting magic
(+) Fantastic use of interesting side characters
(+) A heart-pounding conclusion that left me wondering what would come next
(-) Interior margins could have been a little wider