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“Then we die. But I reckon it’s better to die young than to die old, bitter, and hollowed by regret.”

Die YoungRune magic, shamanistic spirit weaving magic, looming war, clashing cultures and religions, a motley crew of misfits, and a corrupt school of rogue mages; these are just a few of the incredibly captivating aspects that make Morgan Shank’s Die Young a true triumph of character-driven dark fantasy that will both shatter and revive even the coldest of hearts.

Though told through the eyes of five diverse and uniquely fascinating characters, Die Young mainly focuses on the Tower graduated mage Magon Dross. The devastating loss of his magic in the first chapter sets off a chain of events that slowly bring to light some long-hidden schemes and conspiracies that never should have been discovered, and now the Tower wants him dead. His paths cross with the most unlikely of allies, and together they are launched into a suicide mission to stop the Tower before they all might bite the dust.

“They take our life, our identity, and our purpose. They pretend to give us something new, and all the while they hold cloaks over our eyes and lie to us. Hounds and assassination attempts? That’s not the Tower I know. That’s a sick, wretched animal, and it needs to be put down.”

Now, contrary to what the synopsis, exhilarating first chapter, and the (ungodly stunning) cover might have you believe, Die Young is actually not a very action-packed or battle-heavy fantasy story. And for me, that is precisely why this book worked so incredibly well. Yes, it’s got bloody fights, and people magically flying around, and cutthroat political intrigue, and exhilarating chases and escapes, and people shapeshifting into animals, and a constant anticipatory dread from the looming war. And yet to me, the most compelling conflicts in this story are simply the invisible battles that the characters are fighting in their own minds. 

The majority of the first half of Die Young is spent carefully establishing this dynamic cast of characters and their respective backgrounds and personal motivations, which built up a deep sense of emotional investment that kept me engaged the entire way through. So even when the pacing slowed down in places to focus more on the quiet yet powerful exploration of the themes of life, death, faith, religion, morality, corruption, and familial duty, I was inexplicably captivated and truly couldn’t stop turning the pages.

“Living in fear of death isn’t the same as living. How can you run from death if your every moment brings it closer? You’re fighting time itself, the debt we all owe, but it’s better if you ride the current. Accept death when it comes, and until then, do the best you can. Find what you’re meant to accomplish and live that purpose with all your might.”

Shank simply does such a masterful job of interweaving the external conflicts with the characters’ inner conflicts, which is exactly why the stakes feel so dangerously high. Be it Magon’s inner turmoil over the loss of his magic and the point of living, Seneka’s struggles to find a purpose in life, Oath’s conflicts with his faith, Itula’s complicated relationship to her tribal heritage and spirit weaver magic, or (maybe my personal favourite?) princess Elthren’s fight for her own agency and freedom from her father’s bloody legacy; each of their respective arcs just developed in the most surprising ways, making Die Young an unexpectedly brutal emotional rollercoaster in the best way possible.

And then add to all that their incredibly complicated yet beautiful interpersonal relationships that tentatively bloom over the course of their journey, which only added even more nuance, depth and heart to this story. I especially loved the complicated sibling bond between Magon and Seneka, the strong friendship between Magon and his childhood best friend Joska, and the unexpected bonds of loyalty and protection between Oath, Itula and Denton (a.k.a. the most precious little bean who deserves to be protected at all costs).

“Take heart. The journey is long, but it needs to be. We never learn if we aren’t paying attention. We never understand if we don’t keep our eyes and ears open. Always be ready for the unexpected, and when it happens, embrace it. You never know what you’ll discover.”

Now, there’s no denying that the 600+ page count for Die Young can seem a bit intimidating, but to me the pacing was very smooth and almost dangerously addictive. I can see how more action-driven readers could find the middle section on the Lhorian Isles with the Ulvans to be a bit slow, but I personally found the deeper exploration of the tense international political landscape, the culture clashes, and the disturbing look into the twisted intertwining of magic and religion in that part of the story to be incredibly fascinating.

And oh boy, does Shank reap the rewards of all that slow-burn build-up in the absolutely pulse-pounding and surprisingly gut wrenching final showdown where nothing and no one is proven to be safe. I am personally a sucker for a good bit of emotional destruction, so this satisfying yet bittersweet ending was just drop-dead gorgeous to me.

“Hoping for different outcomes and better futures solved nothing  – not if Freytilians still focused on the same old stories of power and liberation. They conjured fantastical futures when the past already affirmed their present choice: try the harder road. No magic. No bladeds. No crusades. Only fidelity, loyalty, and duty.”

Safe to say that The Runeborn Trilogy has gone off to an incredibly strong start, immediately putting Shank on my auto-buy authors list. You better bet I will be going back to his Low Country trilogy, set in the same world, while I (im)patiently wait for the sequels to come out. If you like your fantasy to be epic, dark, and filled with equal parts action and emotion, then I can’t recommend Die Young highly enough!

Thank you to the author for providing me with an eARC in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

Die Young

Die Young

Die Young

Die Young

Die Young

Die Young

Die Young

Die Young

Esmay Rosalyne

Esmay is a self-proclaimed professional book devourer from The Netherlands. While (dark) fantasy will always have her heart, she is also a big indie/self-pub enthusiast and will probably read anything if the premise sounds intriguing enough. Or, you know, if it promises complete emotional destruction. When not reading books, she is probably reviewing books, talking about books, or watching videos of fellow bookworms talking about books.

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