*Image and book provided via NetGalley for an honest review.
Habidah and her team of anthropologists from another plane are studying this world before and during the Black Plague. They are gathering information on how societies handle such a powerful epidemic because their own world is suffering from an incurable disease and information is helpful. Nicculoccio is a monk at Sacro Cuore, the only of his brothers to survive the plague. He's buried all of the others and has no reason not to believe he's the last human alive. When Habidah and Nicculoccio meet, it sets them on the path to discover what is really happening in both their worlds and how to stop it.
This book does an interesting thing. It manages a tight balance between exposition, philosophy and story that keeps this book interesting. With as long as this book is and with as little action as there is, there was the risk of being boring, but Palmgren does a great job of keeping all the elements in line so that I was still engaged in the reading. I never drifted off or loss interest because all the elements at play were kept balanced. Palmgren also keeps the mystery of the powers at play just out of reach enough that I had to keep reading because I couldn't guess and I was as curious as the characters.
It was genuinely interesting to read the juxtaposition of the advanced, interplanar society next to the medieval, scientifically illiterate world. To see the similarities between how the amalgamates are treated and how God is thought of. To read about the varying reactions to an unstoppable, unpredictable disease. The attitude that Habidah's team has towards the "backward" people of Nicculoccio's world and the reverence Nicculoccio has towards Habidah's world makes for an interesting dynamic and conversation.
Then there are the thought experiments/meditations. Does the amalgamates refusal to cure the Black Plague equal the force that causes the plague in Habidah's world? Are they equally evil or is one worse than the other? Does the knowledge that nothing you do matters liberate you or trap you? How do you keep moving forward when everything seems pointless or trivial?
As much as I love books with high action and low exposition, every now and then it's good to stretch my brain with a book like this. A book with more philosophy and story than action, but still well balanced and interesting. If you're a fan of historical fiction looking to branch into Sci-Fi or looking for heavier read in general, I recommend this book. It's got plenty of power play drama, religious in-fighting and some actual fighting. It's also got new worlds to discover and governments to destroy. 3.5 hoots!