In a medieval fantasy/post-apocalyptic world, Zed Kagari knows his only chance of a different life is to be chosen for a good guild. Being half-elven and with a mother in the servants guild, he's been overlooked and persecuted for most of his life. Even his best friend, Brock Dunderfel, who is assured of a good place in the Merchants Guild with his family, feels a need to constantly protect Zed. After a run-in with a noble's son, Micah, and an encounter with a mysterious fortune-teller, the big day arrives. Along with some shocks for all.
Now Zed, Brock, Liza (Micah's noble sister) and Jett (Zed's friend and a dwarf) are apprentices in the most notorious and potentially deadly guild in the city. They'll be venturing outside the walls, going up against the monstrous Dangers, and working for the strange and crude guild leader, Frond. But first they'll have to survive their initiation and a deadly conspiracy that could destroy not only the Adventurers Guild and the small group of friends, but the whole city.
This is definitely the first book in a series as it ends on a major cliffhanger; after Zed and his friends defeat a horrible and traitorous enemy, they're clearly not going to have much time before they're plunged into the next conflict. The world building is fast and furious, slapping together a picture of a medieval, feudalistic society with horrendous monsters and a lot of class and race prejudice that's based both on history as well as culture. The viewpoint jumps back and forth from Zed and Brock, although Brock is more clearly fleshed out, along with some input from Liza. Zed is clumsy, shy, and a little naive. He desperately wants to be accepted and safe, to have meaning in his life and do something important. Ultimately, he wants a family to accept him. Brock is a more complex character. He's accepted his privilege while recognizing that not everyone has the same life he does. He's often patronizing in his care of Zed and torn between his need to take care of Zed and his other friends and the demands made on him by his family and the Merchants Guild. Brock has a lot of pride and uses his words like a weapon - it's hard for him to accept that his guild might be lying to him and that he may have made the wrong choices.
Liza is a fascinating, although somewhat stereotyped character and I hope she will be given a more central role in later books. Unlike the others, she chose to join the Adventurers Guild, looking for a life outside her stifled existence as a noble's daughter and knowing the knights guild refuses to let women fight. She's a natural leader and, even more important, is able to be flexible and examine her own motives and beliefs, recognizing when she's made a mistake or is prejudiced against others.
The plot moves at a rapid pace, leaving readers little time to get acquainted with the more subtle emotions and characters in the book and frankly that's why I like middle grade rather than young adult literature! While the book could have dwelt on Jett's injury and the feelings and impact of various tragedies, there isn't time - there's another crisis, another monster, another conspiracy awaiting readers. In some ways, it reminded me of John Flanagan's Ranger's Apprentice series with the main characters having to deal with their lives not going the way they expect and discovering secrets and political intrigue as well as magic. It's a darker story, certainly, with some terrifying monsters (Dangers) and no promise of a happy ending any time soon, but readers who want an absorbing fantasy are sure to fall for this one.
Verdict: Readers who like fast-paced adventure and fantasy will gobble this story up; the only drawback is the major cliff-hanger at the end of the story and how long they'll have to wait for a sequel. I also hope to see more attention given to the female characters like Liza and Frond. Recommended.
ISBN: 9781484798546; Published October 2017 by Disney-Hyperion; ARC provided by publisher; Purchased for the library