Rating: (5 out of 5)
In the former United States, sixteen-year-old Noam Álvaro wakes up in a hospital bed, the sole survivor of the viral magic that killed his family and made him a technopath. His ability to control technology attracts the attention of the minister of defense and thrusts him into the magical elite of the nation of Carolinia.
The son of undocumented immigrants, Noam has spent his life fighting for the rights of refugees fleeing magical outbreaks—refugees Carolinia routinely deports with vicious efficiency. Sensing a way to make change, Noam accepts the minister’s offer to teach him the science behind his magic, secretly planning to use it against the government. But then he meets the minister’s son—cruel, dangerous, and achingly beautiful—and the way forward becomes less clear.
Caught between his purpose and his heart, Noam must decide who he can trust and how far he’s willing to go in pursuit of the greater good. (Goodreads)
Please see the end of the post for content warnings.
The Fever King is Victoria Lee’s explosive debut and the first book in her dystopian YA series, Feverwake. It’s so good, in fact, that it’s hard to believe this is even a debut. The author’s narrative voice is strong and compelling, and I enjoyed The Fever King from beginning to end.
I’m not going to lie though, it took me a while to digest what I’d read after I finished the book. The plot unwinds as a layered exploration of right and wrong, and of how far you can go in the service of right before it becomes a wrong of its own. The author combines modern dystopia with elements of Jewish storytelling and a strong theme of seeking to repair the world.
The main character, Noam, brings a fresh gust of air to the dystopian genre. He is both Latinx and Jewish, and openly and explicitly bisexual. The cast overall is ethnically diverse. Noam’s mentor and minister of defense Calix Lehrer is also Jewish, and Noam’s love interest, Dara, is also brown—his name suggests a Persian background—and was raised Jewish.
The son of undocumented immigrants, Noam moonlights as a hacktivist for the immigrant cause. His affinity for technology causes him to become a technopath in the wake of surviving the magic virus, and while at times his abilities seemed maybe a little omnipotent, it was a fascinating take on magic.
But if Noam could use magic—Carolinia’s most treasured resource—for the Atlantian cause, then maybe being a witching wasn’t such a bad thing.
Noam is passionate about refugee rights. As a witching with access to the minister of defense Calix Lehrer, he plans to learn everything he can in his government training program and use it to bring the government down. But the closer he feels to achieving his goals, the more he starts to question whether he really is on the path to making the world a better place. He gets more and more caught up in Lehrer’s machinations until it becomes hard to distinguish between right and wrong.
Lehrer is a character that I felt and still feel very ambivalent about. He is, if not a clear-cut villain, definitely an antagonist. He certainly has some good intentions, but the methods he uses to achieve them are dubious at best. I was able to discuss some of the particulars about Lehrer’s character with some wonderful Jewish friends, whose perspective helped me contextualise Lehrer as a character, for which I am infinitely grateful. One of them compared Lehrer to Magneto, a very fitting analogy:
The cinematic Magneto was never a villain for villainy’s sake, along the lines of “Heh, heh, heh – and now for my malicious plan to take over the world!” He was a reasoned, charismatic villain; yes, he had an extreme agenda, but an understandable one. The new film – the prequel – further elaborates and buttresses Magneto’s backstory. Actually, he is the hero of the film; only later does he become the bad guy. (Source; CN: use of the g-slur)
This quote from the linked article in particular really helped me frame my feelings about Lehrer. He is not a villain for villainy’s sake either, and his villainy is borne of understandable and traumatic circumstances. I think he started out wanting to repair the world in his own way, but his view of the perfect world has become warped. While Noam wants to empower everyone through equal rights, Lehrer wants magic to dictate the distribution of power. (You know, kind of like Magneto wants to put the power in the hands of mutants only.) I’m a huge marshmallow, so I’m not usually very interested in villains, but I truly appreciate the way Lehrer’s character adds dimension to the story here and I’m so intrigued to see what direction the author will take him in the sequel.
I cannot end this review without mentioning the romance between Noam and Dara, and that Dara owns my heart. He is what it says on the packaging: cruel, dangerous, and beautiful, but he is also so much more. In Persian, Dara means “He who holds firm to good”, and Dara has held firm to good through trauma and abuse as best he could. He is another complex character who, like Noam, is trying to work towards a better world while being tossed around by bigger political players. It’s heart-breaking to see him struggle and all I want to do is protect him.
I loved seeing him fall in love with Noam and Noam with him. They have a fraught relationship from the start because there are things that Noam doesn’t know and that Dara cannot tell him, but they start chipping away at each other’s defenses, opening up to each other in trickles. They are, underneath all of their protective armour, just two soft boys looking for love.
He exhaled softly, breath fogging the window glass. He looked so … happy, as if he’d swallowed one of those stars and it illuminated him from within. Noam was struck with the urge to capture this moment somehow, so Dara could relive it.
They had so many missed kissing opportunities that it made me want to scream, but the author definitely delivered on resolving that sexual tension. I don’t want to spoil too much, but they have a beautiful scene together. Of course, the ending tore my heart apart again—if Victoria Lee doesn’t let my boys be happy at some point in this series, I will have some strong words.
Either way, if you haven’t read The Fever King yet, you should run, not walk. But be warned: it’s not a light read and it will leave you reeling with emotion for a while.
CONTENT WARNINGS: parental death, suicide / hanging (past), substance abuse, physical and emotional child abuse, statutory rape (not explicit), mention of the Holocaust, mention of past medical experiments
All quotes are taken from an uncorrected proof and might not match the published version.
Thank you to NetGalley and Skyscape for providing me with a review copy in exchange for an honest review.
Have you read The Fever King? What were your thoughts? Let’s chat in the comments below!