“On the table: Calinthe’s discovery, a charm powerful enough to transform a mortal into a god… against a secret so deadly it could quell all life on every plane of the dominion.”
Merchants of Knowledge and Magic is a story of truly epic proportions, and to say it is unique would honestly be the understatement of the year. Filled with diverse and slightly unhinged characters, interdominional travel, dangerous secrets, riveting mysteries, page-turning intrigue, and breathtaking world building, this is the diverse and refreshing dark epic sci-fantasy you didn’t know you needed.
As an aroace, intersex, human-dragonfly hybrid Merchant of Knowledge, Calinthe is not your typical run-of-the-mill fantasy protagonist. Together with her closest companion Zakuro, whose illusionist magic keeps her ‘abominable’ gender hidden, she travels the various planes of the Dominion to gather the most valuable secrets for her demonic employer.
But to fulfil her latest mission, she must cross into the most dangerous place she could ever find herself: the Ophidian Plane, ruled by the worst of terfs and vile matriarchal slavers. What follows is a wild emotional rollercoaster of a quest that will not only test her and Zakuro to their utmost limits, but also put all life throughout the entire Pentagonal Dominion on the line.
Now, books very often get labelled as being either plot- or character-driven, but I’d argue that this story is neither. If anything, it’s the truly astounding world building and exploration of gender and diversity on which every single aspect of this story hinges. The Pentagonal Dominion is truly one of the most imaginative worlds I have ever had the pleasure of exploring, and I was fully absorbed from page one.
Filled with weird and bizarre creatures, diverse characters, enthralling landscapes, rich cultures, and intriguing magic, this world just feels like it’s living and breathing all on its own. Is there arguably way too much to take in? Probably. Did I still eagerly gobble up every single sliver of new information we got? Abso-fucking-lutely. Fans of footnotes, you’re in the right place here.
I think I was so fully pulled into this world because we get to explore it so organically through Calinthe’s first person perspective. Because of her weird mix of genes, she can come off a bit emotionally closed-off (almost autistic-coded, but don’t take my word for it), yet I still latched onto her immediately. On her travels as a Merchant of Knowledge, we naturally get to explore this world in all its glory and interact with a plethora of diverse and intriguing characters who make this story come to life.
Because, you see, as much as I loved reading from Calinthe’s perspective, I think it was the supporting cast of endearing, peculiar and slightly chaotic characters that completely stole the show for me. First of all, the relationship between our titular merchants of knowledge and magic absolutely gave me life. As someone who is questioning if they are on the ace-spectrum, I loved how the deep-seated bonds of love, loyalty, and trust between Calinthe and Zakuro are fully established without any grand romantic or sexual gestures. The representation feels so authentic and their relationship tugged on my heartstrings in all the best ways.
And then we’ve got the oddly endearing Demon Lord Williford (willy for the win) and the completely unhinged Merchant of Hedonism, Requiem, who were both unacceptably hysterical. The dialogue in their scenes was just effortlessly funny and had me cackling out loud more times than I can count. Please, for the love of all that is holy, give me a spin-off just following them going about their daily lives. I would sell my soul for it.
Though, as wondrous, whimsical and entertaining as this story can be, the author doesn’t hold back on mixing in some truly dark, dirty, and depraved elements. The more you read, the darker the story gets, up to the point that you will be filled with rage and ready to incinerate certain utterly depraved characters who will single-handedly obliterate all your faith in humanity. Themes of bodily autonomy, religion, gender discrimination, sex slavery, rape, torture, and domination are explored in a brutally raw and honest way, which makes the emotional impact of this story higher than you could possibly ever have imagined.
Normally I very quickly bounce off the more dirty and twisted content, but here it just worked really well for me. Every single aspect of the story is so beautifully in sync with each other and that is why those more disturbing twists didn’t feel gratuitous or out of place. The author handles these heavy topics with the care and nuance they deserve, while also expertly maintaining the more whimsical and slightly zany tone of the story.
Now, I could ramble on and on about what is so brilliant about this book, but I honestly don’t think my words can ever capture the magic or fully do this story justice. If you don’t mind a slow-burn start, heavy thematic messaging, and a bit of an indulgent approach to world building, then you are in for an absolute treat here.
Merchants of Knowledge and Magic is nothing short of a masterpiece. This unapologetically weird, diverse, queer, imaginative, indulgent, and deliciously dark gem of a book will keep you on your toes from start to finish.
Thank you to the author for providing me with a free ecopy in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.