In The Last Bloodcarver by debut author Vanessa Le, we follow Nhika as she navigates the city of Theumas, a bastion of industrial innovation. Nhika wields a deeply misunderstood power: the ability to manipulate the anatomy of others with only a touch, known to Theumans as “bloodcarving”. To protect herself, Nhika must hide her identity, cloaking her bloodcarving under the guise of homeopathy. But for Nhika this power is one of the last tangible connections she has with her homeland Yarong, and with her deceased grandmother, who wielded this power as a healer. 

Unfortunately, Nhika’s power makes her a valuable target, especially to desperate and bloodthirsty aristocrats. Nhika is captured by black market traffickers and sold to the wealthy Congmi family who task her with healing the last witness to a high-profile murder. Eventually, Nhika builds a tenuous bond with the Congmis and grows more entangled in the murder plot, finding a much darker evil lurking under the facade of high society in Theumas.

Vanessa Le throws us into Nhika’s world with a vivid immediacy, taking us on a thrilling ride. Le creates settings that are expansive and varied, from the dark underbelly of Butchers’ Row where Nhika was sold, to the glamorous Congmi manor where she ends up. Theumas exists in an era that was recently industrialized, something Le captures through descriptions of the world’s technology and customs balanced between the antiquated and the modern. It was captivating traveling through Theumas alongside Nhika and learning with her as she encountered new and unfamiliar settings. 

Showcasing her knowledge of healthcare and medicine, Le envisions bloodcarving as a detailed fictional scientific mechanism. Every description of bloodcarving is visceral in detail and displays a deep intimacy between Nhika and her patients. In this world, bloodcarving, or heartsoothing as it was originally called, is mystified, exploited, and misunderstood, driving Nhika’s family and those like them out of Yarong. To her knowledge, Nhika is one of the last remaining heartsooths, and she has much to learn, but no one or nothing to learn from, reflecting the ways in which colonization destroys not only people and land but also cultures, traditions, and histories.

Theumas feels intricate, its history rich and complex, especially in its connection to Yarong and other neighboring regions. Vanessa doesn’t shy away from exploring imperialism and genocide, and she does so critically, weaving these considerations into her characters and how they interact with each other and their world. As a Yarongese, Nhika gives voice to the oppressed class in this narrative, and her ambitious will to carry on her family’s legacy is striking. 

Compared to Nhika, some of the side characters felt a touch underbaked. Though they were still endearing, for the most part, the highly privileged and powerful Congmis are portrayed as benevolent and philanthropic. With such in-depth exploration of Nhika’s character as the member of a diaspora, I felt that same level of complexity was missing with the Congmis and their dynamic with Nhika. 

About two-thirds through the book, the story shifts pretty quickly, covering a romance arc, plot twist, and attempted murder plot all at once. These were ambitious plot points to cover, and Vanessa’s descriptive writing holds strong, but I did find myself a little more at odds with the characters, their reasoning, and their actions through this section. For instance, I thought the romance arc, which appears to build the foundation of the next book in the duology, felt rushed and slightly underdeveloped. Still, there remains so much to build from, and I’m excited for the next chapter of this story. 

It’s hard to come across diverse protagonists and settings in fantasy, but Vanessa presents a compelling narrative to add to this very saturated market. The Last Bloodcarver was a truly refreshing read with innovative elements and detailed worldbuilding that draw the reader in, and I’m looking forward to what Vanessa has in store for this duology and beyond.  

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