I am used to fantasy novels and Regency romances that star wealthy nobles and royals who have tragic pasts and presents and yet still, are afforded a great deal of respect by virture of their fortunate birth. And no one ever ponders where the money for noble Lord So&So's splendid balls, or feisty orphan Lady Such&Such's swashbuckling tour of the world, comes from. This book takes that subject head on, and delves even deeper, from a glittering steampunky world teetering on revolution into a mystical, allegorical land.
Taking this journey are two unmagical humans, Aude and Jehan. Aude is a lonely young heiress, with a quick mind, strong sense of compassion and very little experience in the world. When she comes of age, she convinces her guardian to help her tour her factories and estates, in hopes of discovering why she has so much and others have so little. As a titled, unmarried young girl, Aude is afforded with respect but little actual authority. To help her, then, she enlists the guardsman Jehan, who is initially furious to be taken away from patrolling the city. (This first half of the novel deals a great deal with classism, capitalism, and sexism, though it never felt heavy-handed.) They finally reach the hut where Aude's ancestors first started accruing their wealth. The jumbled, yellowing papers Aude finds are no help--but then a great wind pulls her into the afterlife, to pay for a long-ago deal made by an ancestor.
The servants of the Grass King don't care that Aude didn't make the deal, they just want her to fix the matter. The Grass King's servants are confusing, contradictory, sometimes kind and sometimes murderous, and Aude tries again and again to escape the strange prison she finds herself in. Jehan, meanwhile, travels through the world Between in hopes of finding Aude once more.
The language is beautiful, the characters unique and memorable (my faves were the ferrets Yelena and Julana, whose alien viewpoint is fascinating to read), the magical underworld suuuper creepy but also dreamy, like an earthier, scarier version of Beauty&the Beast's castle or Sleeping Beauty's thorn-covered castle. The magical and spiritual system was wholly new to me--unlike almost every other fantasy novel with a created pantheon, I really was as lost as the viewpoint characters, and couldn't cheat by knowing (for instance) that "Mr. Wednesday" was probably Odin. I was completely enthralled and entranced and transported by this book. I only wish it was thousands of pages longer, somehow. I put off reviewing it for weeks because I know there's no way I can convey how wonderful it is, or how much depth there is to every part of it. Go read it and see for yourself!