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Literature / Starless

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Starless is an epic fantasy novel written by Jacqueline Carey.

Both of them born in the moment of a lunar eclipse, Khai was chosen to be the shadow to princess Zariya's light. Trained in stealth and death by the Brotherhood of Parkhun in the deep desert, Khai is Zariya's ultimate protector. To keep her alive, they both will have to journey far beneath the starless skies...

This book provides examples of:

  • Aborted Arc: Both Khai and Zariya believe Zariya's crippling fever was too unlikely to be an accident. Khai sets out to uncover who, but the most they uncover is hearsay on her brother's poisoning. The riot attacks her sister's wedding and takes out their most likely suspects anyway.
  • The Ageless: Literally, the House of the Ageless, the ruling family of Zarkhoum, with the aid of god-blessed rhamanthus seeds. It's not permanent; eventually their body stops absorbing the essence of Anamuht and returns to aging and mortality, called khementaran, which some treat as a choice and others as a bodily failing, or even something to be triggered with enough shock. Lives of several centuries are not unheard of.
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  • Alien Sky: Apart from the sun, three moons are mentioned, a bright moon, a shadowy moon, and a wandering moon. Two moons in eclipse coinciding with royal birth sparks Khai's destiny. And as noted by Khai's narration, the sky is starless...
  • Ambiguous Gender: In-universe, Khai is androgynous enough to pass as either man or woman. The king remarks that even being told Khai is bhazim, it was hard to tell. Unfortunately, this leads to a distressing scene where Khai is forced to strip to prove gender, as only eunuchs were permitted as guards for the women's quarters. Evene later remarks the same, although she attaches much less importance to it.
  • Arc Words:
    • "If this, then that, but if this, then that." Part of Yarit's mutterings when his Seer powers first awaken, Khai steals the phrase to describe fate, and the many ways a chain of actions and consequences, large or small, manage to put people in the right place at the right time, starting with Yarit himself.
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    • Honor beyond honor. Originally said by Vironesh when he failed to protect his soul-twin, the phrase is passed to Brother Saan and then to Khai, to describe finding honor in duty and succeeding in that duty regardless of means, rather than adhering to any particular code of action. In another work, this might be the start of a Well-Intentioned Extremist, but here, such reasoning encourages characters to grow beyond their own boundaries or the expectations set on them.
  • Arranged Marriage: Anamuht's requirement for making more rhamanthus seeds and fixing the shortage is that Zariya must be married off to a foreigner, with a vast amount of seeds as dowry. Downplayed slightly as King Azarkal at least allows Zariya a choice out of the prospects he deems suitable. While the suitors and engagement proceed as expected, the journey at sea does not, and in hindsight Anamuht was clearly putting pieces of prophecy into play.
  • Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence: The unspoken goal of the prophecy is to return Miasmus to the skies, where he belongs and can do no more harm. Notably, when the defenders guess this might be one outcome, Miasmus is so mired in hatred he actually refuses to do so willingly, and the actions of the defenders end up forcing him to ascend.
  • The Atoner: King Azarkal deeply repents having turned his family into a vipers nest that has cost him sons and daughters. On learning he'll be losing Zariya to a foreign marriage, he finally enters khementaran, and on actually losing her to seeming pirates, he joins the coursers of Obid to find her again. By the time Zariya actually meets him again, he is taking care of refugees wholeheartedly, and formally abdicates so he can continue his work, believing his remaining children can do a far better job than he did.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: The House of the Ageless.
    • Prince Karazon, least screwed up and the King's favored son, Vironesh's soul-twin, killed off by poison years ago.
    • Prince Tazaresh, bold and honorable, but Khai discovers he's the one who killed off Karazon.
    • Prince Elizar, firstborn, greedy and calculating, known to have executed innocents but still second in line to inherit.
    • Prince Dozaren, shameles flirt, seemingly behind his brothers and unlikely to gain the crown, but clearly has a hidden agenda.
    • King Azarkal's five wives, all competing for his attentions and using their children as proxies to gain favor.
    • The most reasonable are the few princesses that managed to escape the cycle of scheming - Nizara, high priestess of Anamuht, Fazarah, who rejected endless youth and palace life to take care of the city itself, and Zariya herself, left out of family squabbles and growing up humbler by virtue of being crippled as a child, now no longer ignorable thanks to Khai's presence.
  • Blood Knight:
    • Khai, in line with his training, has a default reaction of trying to beat or kill whatever is in his way. He volunteers for Trial by Combat at age nine, and actually earns a first kill before he's twelve. Mellows out as he gets more worldly experience, although violence is always a part of his nature. Once outside Zarkhoum, he actually draws pity for having such dire skills.
    • The warriors of Granth, a neighboring nation to Zarkhoum, whose default mode appears to be proving their strength in bloody deadly duels. The last time the Brotherhood of Parkhun was actively leading warriors was against a Granth invasion.
  • Breath Weapon: Granthian stink-lizards, which are pretty much disgusting looking dragons that spit acidic bile.
  • Bullet Time: As a shadow-soul to Zariya, Khai learns to channel the essence of Pahrkun's wind, speeding up his perception to see the gaps in between attacks and defenses, and occasionally even the gaps in conversation that might reveal a person's thoughts.
  • Cabin Fever: Zariya notes that however much they might want to never leave each other's side, an idle life stuck in the palace hovering over her might actually drive Khai insane.
  • The Captain: Averted with the defenders crew. Zariya starts to treat Jahno like a captain, and is told they work more like a family than anything else.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • The ultra-rare amber gem implanted in Khai's skin to supress his cycles. The final prophecy piece names the amber gem as a seed of ending, and Miasmus is supposed to swallow it, leading to It Was with You All Along. Also strongly suggests even Khai's gender problems were all part of the gods plans.
    • Zariya asks Anamuht directly for her blessing, and with it gains an unexplained glowing mark on her hand. Anamuht gave her lightning to wield, although between her impaired body and lacking a source of power, it's not clear until later.
    • The rhamanthus seeds. The giant dowry of seeds supposedly intended for Zariya's husband instead is ammunition for Zariya's lightning.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Yarit's thieving training, initially thought to give Khai an edge against opponents using such subtle techniques. Khai has to play the full-blown thief to steal the final key record of the Scattered Prophecy from a rich merchant.
  • Child Soldier: Discussed when Khai asks to be part of the Trial, since Khai is younger (nine) than any normal trainee. One Elder is in favor of not exposing him to killing early, another notes death doesn't respect age so easily. Also brought up is that they shouldn't risk losing The Chosen One, to which the eldest notes there are any number of other dangers that could claim his life, and another should not be feared. Eventually he is permitted to stand in the last position (with two Brothers before him) once they determine he's taking it seriously.
  • The Chosen One: Zigzagged. Khai was indeed born in the same moment of lunar eclipse as Zariya, and the priests hold that a royal child born of such an event will be sun-blessed and have a shadow-soul. The kingdom is large enough that there were actually thirteen such children though. The Parkhun seers let a feather drift down over the assembled children to let Pahrkun the Scouring Wind point to the correct child, and Khai is not only clearly chosen but catches the feather.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: Riots break out and a mob led by the Mad Priest attacks the royal wedding party. After slaughtering the nearby guard, a full half of the mob concentrates on killing Khai and taking Zariya. They're disorganized but rage-filled and well armed. They lose. Khai ends up building a wall of corpses and neither Khai nor Zariya is wounded or even touched.
  • Decadent Court: The House of the Ageless. The family competes for the King's attentions, for the right to inherit, and with the rhamanthus shortage, for the right to stay young. King Azarkal initially encouraged such competition to guide him to a skillful heir. With one son lost to poisoning, Zariya crippled in possibly another gambit, and deadly intrigue continuing, he has serious cause to repent it by the end.
  • Disabled Means Helpless: Zaryia was crippled by a fever early in her childhood, leaving her weak in all her muscles, but mostly her lungs and legs. She can walk using canes, but its still difficult. Khai initially wants to help her with everything, but Zariya quickly establishes that the more she can do herself the better. The entire palace already treats her as helpless and the coddling hasn't helped her at all.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: For the crime of losing to Khai in combat and being left alive with that insult, Varkas marshals a fleet of Granthian ships and a flight of stink-lizards to slaughter the wedding party and take Zariya and the rhamanthus by force.
  • The Ditz: Lirios the Quick spends most of his time asking silly questions or pointing out the obvious. Justified since, as a mayfly, he's nine years old. He's never actually been in a fight or had an end-of-the-world adventure before, although befitting his name he learns and fights fast.
  • Divine Conflict: In the mythology, all the gods were stars in the sky. The stars rebelled against the sun and moons, and were ejected from the skies to walk the earth. Miasmus was a secret child of the gods, hidden in darkness and not even aware of their rebellion, and sadly cast out of the skies just like the rest despite not earning it. Terribly lonely to begin with, and now resentful and raging, he's attempting to end the world to punish his fellow gods.
  • Duel to the Death: Zariya's betrothal attracts two Granthian suitors, whose idea of courting her is to duel each other and the survivor wins her. Zariya actually has interest in Sandrath the Quiet, but the boorish Varkas Long-Arm wins. She responds by sending Khai as her champion to test Granth's claim, and Varkas is found lacking.
  • Dungeon Bypass: Evene of Drogalia is blessed as the Opener of Ways, and her gift is to magically open doors. She used this to make her way as a petty thief, before being caught and ending up with Jahno and the rest. She realizes just in time that it's Ways, not just doors, and is able to open a path through a panicked crowd, the swarm of spiders, and even the risen army between them and the Maw. She can't hold it forever and the magic won't work on anything behind them, so fighting through still occurs, but bypassing Miasmus' forces is the only way the defenders get anywhere at all.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Having gone through hell and back as the tools of fate, Zariya and Khai decide to make their own life on their own terms, and settle in the Nexus archipelago with the rest of the surviving defenders as Family of Choice. While the gods are gone, some form of their gifts remain, and with the last rhamanthus seeds, they may have a very long happily ever after. The last pages suggest they may collect all the gods stories to keep them alive, or invent new tales to inspire honor beyond honor, and Babies Ever After is even discussed with Zariya considering Jahno's help.
  • Elixir of Life: The rhamanthus seeds, when empowered by Anamuht, grant a year of youth and vitality. The House of the Ageless keeps the harvest; King Azarkal has ruled for 300 years. One cannot live forever, however, and in Khai's time, Azarkal's family has grown large, Anamuht's blessings are rarer, and the seeds are running out.
  • Emotion Suppression: Vironesh chews a special herb known for deadening emotions, to bear the pain of losing his soul twin. Portrayed in a bad light, as this prevents him from bonding with Khai and truly passing on his knowledge, until Yarit finds and burns his supply.
  • Everything Trying to Kill You: Papa-ka-hondras, a land so lethal it has never been explored. When the Oracle points Zariya here for healing, the crew find its Not Hyperbole, between trees dripping acid, poisonous plants, carnivorous plants, carnivorous animals, quicksand and more mundane hazards too, with the local god in their heads and actively pushing panic buttons to make you run blindly into a death trap.
  • Family of Choice: With all the defenders having lost home or family, following the example of the Elehuddin they form their own. Khai even notes on their first night on board that without the endless scheming of the Ageless hovering over her, Zariya is probably safer with strangers than she has been with family. In the end, Zariya and Khai choose the defenders as family, and beyond visiting one last time plan not to return to Zarkhoum.
  • Fantasy Contraception: Brother Yarit "obtains" a very rare god-blessed jewel of amber that can suppress periods and conception when implanted beneath the skin. Khai eventually accepts it as the only way he can hold on to the identity he has.
  • Fish People: The Elehuddin, green-tan humanoids that live deep in the ocean. Half a dozen help crew the defenders ship.
  • Framing the Guilty Party: Tazaresh is killed by the strangely well-armed rioting mob, and the guard eventually finds a merchant that sold a lot of such arms to Elizar, who is tossed in a dungeon. Both were guilty of some heinous things, which is why Dozaren arranged it all using a forged copy of Elizar's seal. Zariya, despite being an unintended target of the mob, gloomily agrees he might well be a better heir, and keeps quiet about it for now.
  • Genius Loci: Evene tries to use her power to open a path through the many lethal hazard of Papa-ka-hondras, and finds she can't. The entire island is one very very hostile entity, possibly the resident god itself.
  • God of Evil: Miasmus, who desires the death of all the lands, so that his fellow gods suffer as he suffered.
  • Hand Signals: Part of Yarit's training includes a hand signal language used by his thieves clan. Khai teaches it to Zariya so they can converse silently in public. Once at sea, Khai and Zariya teach it to the rest of the defenders, especially the Elehuddin, who physically can't mimic land-dwellers speech, so that they can all have a language in common.
  • Harmful Healing: The healing offered to Zariya by the Green Lady of Papa-ka-hondras entails swallowing a live poisonous centipede and letting it move through her body. Zariya spends hours screaming her lungs out in absolute agony. It works; she spends days recovering and still can't walk properly, but her lungs and upper body are no longer weak and she can channel Anamuht's lightning.
  • Heaven Above: The sun and moons are gods, and the Physical Gods walking the earth used to be the stars. On fulfilling the prophecy, a seed of ending ignited within Miasmus by a seed of beginning, Miasmus's time on earth is ended, and the three moons pull him back into the skies. The rest of the gods follow suit, their penance ended, and the skies are filled with stars once again.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Many once the defenders finally reach Miasmus.
    • One of the sea serpents, Eeeio, intentionally takes a mortal wound and sinks itself to the deeps to take out a zombified sea serpent attacking the ship.
    • Tarrok of Trask, despite knowing his body needs a long recharge between sonic screams, unleashes at least three to aid the defenders in pushing through the risen army. His final scream shatters the boulder blocking the tunnel into Miasmus' volcano, as per prophecy, but shatters his heart with it.
    • Vironesh volunteers to hold the tunnel against the risen, so the defenders can deal with Miasmus. He survives to see the ending, but dies of his wounds by morning.
    • Khai sees how Miasmus must swallow the amber seed of ending, realizes a mere throw won't get it done, and prepares to leap into his maw. Lirios the mayfly sees it coming, and being faster, grabs the seed and does it himself.
  • Heroes "R" Us: The coursers of Obid are the justice seekers of the ocean worldwide, known for pirate hunting. Vironesh joins up with them to forget his failures, and rejoins again to track down the Children of Miasmus. They're the first to lend aid and defend against Miasmus' risen armies, and to aid the refugees of lands overrun. The former King Azarkal joins their ranks as well by the end.
  • Hiding the Handicap: Zariya's disability is hidden from her prospective suitors, by hiding her completely due to Zarkhoum modesty. Since the suitors are there for the rhamanthus dowry, this isn't exactly an obstacle.
  • Honor Before Reason: Discussed and subverted when Brother Yarit begins sharing thieving techniques with Khai. The rest of the Brotherhood sees such techniques as tainting their honor; Brother Saan believes Yarit was brought to them for a purpose, and Khai's unique role may require this unique training to guard against it. The last prince a shadow-soul had guarded was poisoned, giving weight to Saan's interpretation. "Honor beyond honor" is the phrase coined to justify expanding their knowledge, and the drive to succeed where mere honor might fail.
  • It Was with You All Along: In order to find out exactly how to end Miasmus' threat, our heroes steal a final piece of the Scattered Prophecy, which states Miasmus has to swallow a seed of ending, from a solitary tree that only produces a drop of god-blessed amber sap once every century. Sound familiar at all, Khai?
  • Keeping Secrets Sucks: Soul mates in every respect, there is only one secret Khai keeps from Zariya - he has a rare magical seed of amber implanted in his neck that suppresses his female aspects, which he is only secretive about because Yarit had it stolen from the royal family. Zariya's half-brother Elizar was a collector of such rarities and had an innocent man executed trying to get it back. Neither Khai or Zariya hold any illusions about Elizar, but it constantly chafes at Khai to find a "good" time to bring it up.
  • Kick the Dog: For the crime of attempting Talking the Monster to Death, and showing actual sympathy for the dark god, Miasmus hurls Essee into his maw so he can not only kill her but raise her to kill the rest of the defenders.
  • Living Ship: The prophecy seeker ship is actually an uprooted salt-water tree that's still quite alive, providing fruit and supporting a small eco-system of glowing moths.
  • Love at First Sight: The instant Zariya Sun-Blessed and her shadow-soul Khai meet, the entire royal presentation around them ceases to matter, or even exist for them. This doesn't actually result in a romantic love. Right away, at least.
  • Love Epiphany: Khai's anguish at watching Zariya scream for hours of Harmful Healing convince him once and for all that he's absolutely in love with his soul-twin, despite earlier platonic protests and his duty and honor.
  • Make Me Wanna Shout: Tarrok of Trask, known as the Thunderclap. His god-blessing lets him unleash an epic shout that resembles a sonic shockwave, stunning anything nearby.
  • Mayfly–December Romance: An actual race of mayflies. Lirios the Quick is of a race where males have very short lives, and bond with a longer lived female they serve completely as queen. He was bidden by his god to find a queen over this way, and found Zariya, to everyone's confusion and bemusement. He himself is disappointed to learn mating will not be part of his service.
  • Mindlink Mates: Downplayed. The soul bond between Khai and Zariya does appear to be magical, but only manifests as a sensation of completeness when together, and hollow emptiness the further they are from each other. They get some instinctual insight into the other's emotions, but mostly like old friends very in tune with the other, despite having just met.
  • Miracle Food: On their way to the Oracle, a rain goddess grants the defenders one full cask of blessed water, telling them to only use it at final dire need. When the ship enters the dead poison sea near Miasmus, there are no fish for food and even their ship withers and dies, with the sea serpents close behind. The blessed water cures the poison and sustains the crew through the lack of food, until the mission is finished and they can reach living waters again.
  • Mordor: In the wake of the risen army is only poison and death. By the time the defenders are behind the army and passing Trask, Tarrok's home and nation closest to the Maw of Miasmus, it is dead and barren with only ruins and the mourning cries of his god to say anything was there at all. To their horror, they learn the very ocean is not immune as it turns poisonous and begins killing their ship and the serpents towing it.
  • Multinational Team: The prophecy-seekers loosely call themselves the defenders of the four quarters. Jahno has been collecting who he thinks the prophecy states are the needed people for some time.
  • My Greatest Failure: Vironesh, the last shadow-soul, born some hundred years earlier and still around due to rhamanthus seeds, lost his charge not through failure to guard him but to poison. He is so broken from the loss he chews a special herb that prevents him from feeling the pain. All of the actions he takes - sailing off, joining a naval guard, mentoring Khai - are all to make up for his failure.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: A fat, sweaty, colorfully garbed merchant arrives to take the Trial of Parkhun, and several brothers openly wonder if he'll attempt to bribe his way past. It's a disguise to lower their guard, and the petitioner is actually a well-trained thief, killing one brother and nearly killing Khai to pass the Trial. The new Brother Yarit then becomes instrumental, training Khai in stealth and subterfuge, so he can better recognize such dangers as Zariya's shadow.
  • Personal Mook: Khai for Zariya, in addition to roles of bodyguard and soul-mate, ends up running several excursions into the city, since Zariya has no other resources and as a crippled princess doubly can't move around freely. By their thinking, Zariya can be made safer by finding out about threats past and present, rather than Khai simply hovering over her and waiting for assassins to show up.
  • Physical Gods: Many gods walk the earth, having been cast out of the heavens and rendering the sky starless. Pahrkun the Scouring Wind, made up of desert insects representing death, and Anamuht the Purging Fire, a female form veiled in flame and lightning, carrying the blessing of life, are the gods local to Khai and the kingdom of Zarkhoum.
  • The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: The prophecy seekers are actually quite self-sufficient, living off the ocean and fruit from their ship. They only dabble in piracy to get resources to trade, for access to knowledge or the occasional item they can't get or make on their own. It's hard to even imagine one of the sea serpents following through on their threats to squeeze a ship in half.
  • Platonic Life-Partners: Khai and Zariya. Mostly since Khai, due to identity issues and having trained his body purely as a weapon, has barely entertained any romantic or sexual thought. Zariya has to break it to him gently that the entire women's quarters of the palace has already assumed they are lovers despite prohibitions, and Khai is nearly speechless on realizing Zariya is open to the idea.
  • The Prophecy: Zariya tells Khai of an old prophecy that a sun-blessed and their shadow-soul will be needed at the end of the world. Every land under the starless skies has different versions of the same prophecy however. Which was intended, as the prophecy needed to be assembled in a union of all the races, to tell the full tale of what needs to happen. Khai and Zariya are key, but cannot fulfill it all themselves. Jahno the Seeker has done most of the assembling, including half the team needed to beat Miasmus, but is still missing key pieces.
  • Prophet Eyes: Both Saan and Yarit are described as having blurred eyes, especially when actively having visions. They do not appear to be blind, however.
  • Public Bathhouse Scene: Played for Drama. Khai's biggest immediate challenge at court is not a physical threat, but the women's quarters communal baths. His first impulse is pure panic.
  • Puppeteer Parasite: The First Children of Miasmus are black sea spiders that can wrap themselves around a human to take them as hosts. Khai spends a great deal of time at court tracking down The Mad Priest, who ends up being just one of these. They're found to have infested many lands, sowing chaos and despair any way they can.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: A Last of His Kind researcher, an exiled blacksmith, a bad magical thief, a mayfly, a group of fish-people, two sea serpents, and our two damaged soul-mates, with the occasional dabbling in piracy to get by. The defenders of the four quarters definitely qualify.
  • Red Shirt: The Elehuddin unfortunately fill this role in the crew, and lampshade it by noting they've never found any part of the prophecy with a specific role for them, and are thus more expendable. Tiikli and Keeik are snapped up by a nameless horrors on Papa-ka-hondras. Seeak is wounded by risen in the final push to Miasmus, and accepts a Mercy Kill by Khai. Essee is killed by Miasmus himself. Kooie and Tliksee are the only ones to survive.
  • Refusal of the Call: Brother Yarit only took the Trial of Parkhun as a way to survive another day. He's a loose-mouthed city-bred master thief among a sect of devout desert-hardy warrior monks. He balks at sharing his knowledge of less than honorable ways, and steals a horse to flee at the first opportunity. Parkhun himself shows up to cut off his escape and inform him he doesn't have a choice.
  • Relationship Upgrade: Once they have survived their dire fates, Khai and Zariya take the next step and become open lovers. As Zariya puts it, they have fulfilled the god's expectations, and she sees no need to bow to any others anymore.
  • Sarcasm Mode: Lord Rygil of Therin, suitor for Zariya, and his countrymen follow the god Ilharis the Two-Faced. Two-faced conversations end up being their manner of paying the god tribute, so their speech is filled with pure sarcasm, shameless Blatant Lies, and witty double-meanings. Despite confusions, they're easily the friendliest of the suitors.
  • Sea Monster: The prophecy-seeking pirates show up with one giant sea serpent towing their ship and wrapping another around Lord Rygil's ship and threatening to crack it in half. Once we learn more about the defenders, despite the serpents' role as ocean horsepower, we find the sea serpents towing them around are actually kin to the Elehuddin, and are quite sentient and friendly, with a say in where they go just like the rest of the family. Once all this is done Eeeio and Aiiiaii plan to settle down together as mates.
  • Seers:
    • Brother Saan is blessed with future sight by Parkhun. When he dies, the blessing passes to Brother Yarit, who reveals it's less like looking at the future and more like seeing endless chains of possible choices and consequences.
    • The Oracle of the Nexus at the center of the world is the first stop for the prophecy seekers once Khai and Zariya are aboard, as despite collecting prophecy and the needed team, Jahno still has precious few specifics.
  • Shock and Awe: Anamuht's direct blessing of Zariya give her the ability to channel her fire, much like Khai can channel Parkhun's wind. This doesn't actually work at first due to Zariya's crippling health, but once she is made stronger, Zariya can use a rhamanthus seed's energy to unleash a sheet of lightning.
  • Sophisticated as Hell: Brother Yarit is more at home in the city than in the desert, and peppers his speech with sarcasm and curses, standing out from the more honorable brothers. Taken Up to Eleven when he becomes the new Seer, and goes from prophecy to slang at the drop of a hat.
  • Starfish Language: The Elehuddim and the sea serpents talk in a language of whistles and clicks. They can't actually produce sounds that land-dwellers would normally use. Understanding is fine though, and Jahno has lived with them long enough to translate, at least until Khai and Zariya teach them Hand Signals so they can speak for themselves.
  • Stay in the Kitchen: Zarkhoum as a whole has strict separation of genders, including the use of veils. Khai is once called out for staring too closely at someone's sister, which happens because he hasn't seen one before. This does not prevent women from holding power; Zariya's sister Nizara is high priestess of Anamuht, another serves as regent for the city, and the desert tribes use women as arbiters in matters of life and death. All the usual biases and restrictions are in play, unfortunately - women do not serve as warriors, modesty and propriety are enforced wherever possible, with eunuchs are required as royal guards for their quarters. Other nations on the map are not nearly as restrictive. Khai learns of women warriors and even fluid gender concepts from Zariya's tales of foreign places.
  • Talking the Monster to Death: Attempted but subverted. Essee sympathizes with Miasmus' plight and attempts to talk him into returning to the stars. His response is to gloat over his fellow gods suffering, and when Essee tries again and asks if this will make him happy, Miasmus takes it personally and eats her whole, raising her as another minion so he can enjoy making her kill her companions.
  • Three-Act Structure: The novel is split into three explicit acts. The first act is Desert, covering Khai's childhood and training. The second act is Court, as Khai and Zariya work together to learn what fate has in store for them. The third act, Sea, engages as they leave Zarkhoum, letting fate grab the reins of the plot and running them to the ends of the earth.
  • Throwing Off the Disability: Completely subverted. Zariya at first believes the rhamanthus may heal her legs, then a later opportunity to undo some of her damage presents the same hope again. Neither allows her to walk unaided. She does get far stronger at working around it. Carey stated in an interview this was a deliberate choice to avoid Unfortunate Implications.
  • Total Eclipse of the Plot: Two moons in eclipse marks the birth of Sun-Blessed Zariya and her shadow-soul Khai. Three moons in conjunction combine their power to pull Miasmus from the earth and back into the skies.
  • Transgender: Khai was born female, and although his narration hides this at first, it is foreshadowed clearly before the early reveal. Zarkhoum has strict gender roles, and the Brotherhood of Pahrkun a strong idea of honor. So when Khai is chosen, they invoke a tradition called bhazim that lets a family of all daughters raise one to take the male role. For unclear reasons, unlike other bhazim, they don't actually tell Khai how he is different, and with the isolation of the Brotherhood in the desert, Khai has zero opportunities to learn for himself. While very effective at raising Khai as an equal among brothers, they fail to reveal the truth to Khai until he is roughly twelve and basic biology forces their hand. Khai views his budding puberty as a betrayal of his body (would likely be diagnosed as dysphoria) along with the betrayal of his brothers that would not tell him the truth. While most comfortable identifying as male, Khai struggles to adapt fully to any gender role, and considers himself something in between, not male, not female, and not a proper bhazim either. By the end of the book, he surprises himself by identifying as both male and female, and has experiences enough to be at peace with that. The Elehuddin expand Khai's awareness, as they not only have words for more than two genders, they have words for someone of both genders, and for someone moving between genders, as they have the capability to physically transition themselves in between them.
  • Trial by Combat: Any criminal sentenced to execution may opt to take the Trial of Parkhun. The trial is simple - get through the Hall of Proving and back to open sky, with three of the Brotherhood in your path ready to kill. Very few attempt, fewer still make it, and those few are pronounced scoured of their sins and inducted into the order, for such talent isn't to be wasted.
  • Volcanic Veins: The visible sign of khementaran and the end of The Ageless is glowing veins at the pulse points of your wrists and neck.
  • Warrior Monk: The Brotherhood of Parkhun trains in battle and the lore of combat for the day they will be needed. Khai, as Zariya's shadow, is one of the few brethren to not remain in seclusion in the desert.
  • Winds of Destiny, Change: Zariya is gifted a fate-changer by Lord Rygil of Therin, one of her suitors. It is supposed to alter your destiny by changing luck, but whether to good luck or bad luck only the two-faced god of Therin can say. Zariya uses it on their sea journey to Therin to escape the Granthian ships and acid-spitting dragons coming to kill them all. This raises a literal magical wind that lets them outrun the Granthians for a time, but ironically puts them directly in fate's hands by delivering the crippled ship directly to the prophecy-seeking pirates.
  • Wouldn't Hurt a Child: A petitioner nearly strangles Khai in the Trial of Parkhun, but backs off as soon as he realizes how young he is, and as soon as he's back in daylight (and thus safe) loudly declares he won't be killing a child.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: Parkhun shows up in person, twice, to inform first Yarit, then later Vironesh, that they will not be abandoning their post, and they are in fact exactly where they need to be. Yarit's visions imply its far more complicated than that, and that gods and Seers normally must be extremely subtle to avoid breaking the world - and later events imply nearly every aspect of the plot was manuevered to get precisely the needed outcome.
  • Zerg Rush: Once Miasmus rises and can actually focus on the heroes, a swarm of hundreds of black sea spiders rushes them. The swarm ends up following them from island to island, so even though the sea serpents can outrun them, the crew is permanently trying to beat the clock.
  • Zombie Apocalypse: Miasmus is said to unleash the risen and returned, which Jahno theorizes means everything that Miasmus has swallowed as a massive sea vortex over the centuries. He's proven right; when Miasmus awakens, his armies are not only dead men but dead sea creatures small and large, all plated in black (either basalt rock or obsidian) and even given legs of stone if necessary. Their only purpose is to slaughter everything living, and in their wake both land and sea turn poisonous and dead.

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