Knight in Paper Armor (review)

bookshelves: contemporarykindlearcsci-fidystopianpolitical-intrigueparanormalsocial-issuesjewishmythology-folflorecoming-of-age
Recommended for: fans of dystopian fiction
This was my first Nicholas Conley, but I’d heard of his other work before. Pale Highway and The Cage Legacy had been on my TBR for years. Needless to say, I was equally thrilled and surprised when he kindly afforded me the opportunity to read an ARC, in exchange for an honest review. My opinions are my own.

Almost immediately, I knew Knight in Paper Armor would be good. In only a handful of chapters, Conley conveyed an impressive, futuristic, dystopian world. The United States of America on display here pales in comparison to the world now. Instead of the standard fifty states, Conley envisioned a hundred and seventy-nine separate states, and it was through the eyes of Roseanna Peterson, Natalia Gonzalez, and Billy Jakobek that Conley’s world was revealed.

There was something odd, beautiful, and intriguing taking place, boiling just beneath the surface. Adding to those curiosities were historical backdrops, such as the horrors of the Holocaust and former President Trump’s colossal mishandling of immigration policies, which went far to further establish Conley’s world-building skills. The author also utilized traditional Jewish holidays and phrases throughout (even going so far as to title each section with Jewish dialect,) which provided insight into that culture.

Something about the art style creeped her out– it was somehow, bizarrely, both childlike and adult, possessing warped proportions and uneven skill. Lazy stick figure bodies held up hyperdetailed faces. Each drawing depicted a tiny boy with sad black eyes and a rainbow of colors leaked from his body, touching the other stick figures.

With Natalia Gonzalez, Conley explored the Latina culture, and the unique hardships that undocumented individuals face every day.

Alternating between Billy, Natalia, Roseanna, and Caleb, the story progressed at a brisk pace. There were, however, a few places where a slower pace would’ve been preferable, and could’ve made for a more profound sequence of events. But that’s my take. The average reader probably wouldn’t have issues with them.

With that said, he handled the compartmentalization of the characters exceptionally well. I’m not certain that just any author could juggle multiple perspectives of this magnitude with such charisma and panache. He made each individual distinctive, with their own “voice” and various nuances. Three of the four were fleshed out and felt like people I might have befriended in high school. Especially Billy and Natalia. The emotional impact was also well executed. Many times, I felt GUTTED, not just by what happened to them in the present, but also by what they were forced to endure in the past.

If pressed to give additional constructive criticisms, I found the main villain a bit too evil and overpowered. Caleb Thorne was the epitome of Evil. Nobody’s that black and white. I wanted there to be something relatable about him, something that made me care, something to cling to.

Strikingly sprinkled throughout were themes and subject matter including climate change, racism, authoritarian government, the healthcare system, and the perils of the pharmaceutical industry.

The fire tower blinked in the distance, reminding her of another lifetime, another reality—a period in her life that now felt like a beautiful lie. She kept thinking about Billy’s face. His tender little smile. His glistening dark eyes.

Throughout the pivotal middle section, the story reached one of its highest points, which naturally led me to question if that escalation was too much, too soon. In some ways, my reservations were warranted, while in others, Conley maintained that pace and sense of urgency, and that made for a compelling back half. Those final hundred and forty pages contained just enough mystery, intrigue, shocking illuminations, and character development to keep the pages turning.

Natalia especially, but Billy and Roseanna, too, really came into their own. It’s been a long time since I felt that proud of a character, and to marvel aloud the strides she made. I felt such adoration for her, and I extolled her growth and maturity. Over time, she became my favorite character, which is interesting because I was confident Billy would always maintain that status.

In all of Sam’s travels, from country to country, war zone to war zone, he’d seen the way that capitalist greed reached far and wide with its skeletal fingers, always leaving a trail of bodies among the world’s most vulnerable populations.

The last hundred or so pages had the most highs and lows. In retrospect, that really surprises and baffles me, particularly on the heels of such a stellar middle section. The fantasy elements were some of my favorites, despite their shortcomings. They weren’t necessarily in bad form, nor were they poorly written. They weren’t. Simply put, I wanted more of them, and I earnestly thought that would be the case; that the antagonistic tug and pull between Good and Evil that Conley had steadily built upon would somehow live up to my admittedly high expectations. And that their final battle would reach a new height– in some ways it did– traversing many pages and filling them with numerous close calls with death (on both sides,) as well as startling emotional development and revelations.

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. The reader got more of the same, by which I mean the story returned to the norm. There wasn’t anything necessarily wrong with that, but a better balance between fantasy and mundane would’ve gone far. After the culmination of everything that came before (ten years prior,) Conley again achieved the unpredictable and beautiful. Indeed, Chapter Ninety-One was easily one of my most beloved chapters of the whole novel. And call me a glutton for punishment, but I wish the idealistic portions were omitted, with a chapter of two through Natalia’s eyes, showing the results of her actions and reflecting on how the whole of this otherwise impressive coming-of-age story changed her, from the inside out, for the better.

From beginning to end, Conley delivered a wildly unpredictable, well-written story about childhood innocence, and how it’s often corrupted, and about the sins of our fathers, and our unwillingness to learn from past mistakes. And although Knight in Paper Armor clung to the classic Good vs Evil premise, its well-constructed plot never really felt outdated. What’s more, the splashes of horror, plentiful mystery, and philosophical musings resulted in a solid novel that fans of the genres will, most likely, thoroughly enjoy. Nicholas Conley is an author to keep an eye on.

”Truth is a lie… Nothing has meaning…and nothing is the Shape. Apathy is honesty. There’s no force for goodness out there in the universe, Caleb—nothing moving us along, watching us, helping us. But there is a darkness, a reality of the void, and that is the Shape—the one you serve, whether you like it or not.”

*3.5/5 stars*

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