Review: The Last Bloodcarver

Collage of the cover for The Last Bloodcarver by Vanessa Le. The cover is described in more detail in the post.

Illustrated cover for The Last Bloodcarver. A teenage girl with light brown skin on her face and arms has a body made up of pipe-like bones and what look like red carnations. Her right hand has gone through her left ribs, so she can grip the flowers underneath. She looks like she might pull them out. She is wearing a green cape with a gold lining and stands in a field of more of the red flowers. A golden full moon hangs behind her, as well as a pair of red, white, and black fox masks with long, pointed ears.Title: The Last Bloodcarver
Author: Vanessa Le
Genres: Fantasy, Science Fiction, Mystery
Pages: 384
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press
Review Copy: eARC provided via NetGalley
Availability: Available now

Summary: Nhika is a bloodcarver. A coldhearted, ruthless being who can alter human biology with just a touch.

In the industrial city of Theumas, Nhika is seen not as a healer, but a monster that kills for pleasure. And in the city’s criminal underbelly, the rarest of monsters are traded for gold. When Nhika is finally caught by the infamous Butchers, she’s forced to heal the last witness to a high-profile murder.

As Nhika delves into the investigation, all signs point to Ven Kochin, an alluring yet entitled physician’s aide. Despite his relentless attempts to push her out of his opulent world, something inexplicable draws Nhika to him. But when she discovers Kochin is not who he claims to be, Nhika will be faced with a greater, more terrifying evil lurking in the city’s center…

Her only chance to survive lies in a terrible choice—become the dreaded monster the city fears, or risk jeopardizing the future of her kind.

Review: [The Last Bloodcarver includes a significant amount of body horror, from interacting with corpses to repeated references to medical experimentation by a colonial power. The book also includes animal death and extended scenes of characters seriously injured (stab/gunshot wounds).]

I absolutely adored Vanessa Le’s The Last Bloodcarver. Le’s debut novel is set in a complicated Vietnam-inspired fantasy (and science fiction) world, one where war has forced Nhika’s family out of Yarong and into the neutral city-state of Theumas. Even though Nhika has escaped into (currently) neutral territory, Daltanny’s occupation of Yarong still affects Nhika, from the proliferation of the term “bloodcarver” instead of “heartsooth” to the loss of cultural knowledge regarding heartsoothing after Nhika’s grandmother’s death.

That cultural disconnect and the loss of knowledge is something that haunts Nhika throughout the novel. She is keenly aware of her much she doesn’t know and has complicated feelings about how she uses her heartsoothing to survive when the previous generations could do it openly and were honored for it. Theumas might be better for Nhika than Yarong under Daltanny’s occupation, since she isn’t automatically slated for horrific medical “experiments”, but Theumas has its own problems. When the Butchers capture and arrange to sell Nhika, the prospective buyers range from people who think if they consume her heart, they will be cured of whatever ails them, to people who clearly want to use her as an assassin. Even when she is purchased by the Congmi family to try to heal a family friend (and promised freedom and payment even if she can’t help him), fear, suspicion, and hostility are close at hand.

So it’s wonderful whenever Nhika is able to make small connections to what she has lost. (There is a scene where she acquires some Yarongese items and is overwhelmed by what they represent that is just lovely.) Whenever Nhika made the choice to heal and to help, I was delighted by her determination to honor what her grandmother taught her. I appreciated the contrast Kochin represented to Nhika’s experience and the places where the two of them were aligned. Kochin was a character that I didn’t warm up to until after his reveal, but I think his character arc complemented Nhika’s very well.

The mystery of who killed Quan and seriously injured Hendon isn’t a complex one, but unraveling the mystery is far less important than Nhika learning why it happened. Once we have that information, the rest of the book falls into place beautifully. Le’s plotting and development of themes really shined in the second half and propelled the novel to an incredible final act that made me fervently hope there would be a sequel. (And there will be!)

Recommendation: Get it now, so long as you aren’t put off by body horror, medical experimentation, and some gore. Vanessa Le created a fascinating fantasy/sci-fi world in The Last Bloodcarver, and the impacts of war and colonialism on Nhika and her people are explored in interesting ways while a murder mystery unfolds in the foreground. Le’s medical-based magic system is fascinating, and Nhika’s character journey is compelling. I’m looking forward to the conclusion of this duology next year.

Extras: Author Chat w/ Vanessa Le | Books and Boba

Q&A: Vanessa Le, Author of ‘The Last Bloodcarver’