There’s a scene in Kester Grant’s The Court of Miracles (2020) where an entire room of nobles is hypnotized by the head of the assassin’s guild into doing something horrific, but which they are wholly oblivious to. It’s an apt scene to note, because while this first book in the COURT OF MIRACLES trilogy is far from horrific (really, far from it), Grant is such a fluid writer that she lulls you into a sort of readerly trance, a smoothly flowing journey that carries you effortlessly along, leaving you if not oblivious at least uncaring with regard to the story’s several flaws. As such, it’s one of those occasional odd novels where I’m going to say there are lots of places it isn’t very good, but you still may find yourself enjoying it anyway.
The blurbs label it a retelling (of sorts) of Les Misérables, and sure, several of the characters appear here with the same or similar names — Eponine, Javert (here a woman), Valjean — and it is set in revolutionary France, but honestly, I’m not sure the linkage to Hugo’s work, which is pretty minor and surface-level, adds that much to the story or isn’t in fact more of a distraction than a plus. In some ways, I’d even say it’s a negative, such as choosing to make Javert a woman seemingly so her obsession with Valjean could be because they had something a few years back. Why not just keep Javert male and have that same backstory? (Apologies to Grant if there turns out to be some other motive.) Meanwhile, some of the connections feel forced, many feel overly light, and I much preferred Grant’s more original additions to the storyline. So, I’d say don’t think of it as a reworking or retelling; think of it as more “kinda sorta inspired by” and then just forget the whole thing.
Grant sets her story in a Paris where the French Revolution failed and Paris is split amongst the nobility, your basic poor (those who walk by day), and the “Miracle Court” — nine criminal guilds, the most important of which here are The Legion of Ghosts (beggars), The Guild of Assassins, The Guild of Thieves, and The Guild of Flesh. After her sister is sold off by their father to “The Tiger,” leader of the Flesh Guild and feared by all other guild lords, our main character Nina becomes a “cat” (burglar) in the Guild of Thieves. Despite a sworn oath to the Thieves’ leader not to try to rescue her sister, Nina of course does just that. It’s not much of a spoiler (but if you want to avoid even a small one that arrives early in the novel skip to the next paragraph. No, really), to say she fails. But then her protective nature turns to her new sister (not by blood), Ettie, who also catches the attention of The Tiger. To save her Nina will not just set herself against The Tiger, but against any guild lords who refuse to help her, any police, any revolutionaries, the Dauphin, even the Queen herself.
To start with the positives, as noted, Grant’s writing is smooth and engrossing, and while the overall worldbuilding of 19th Century Paris is relatively slim, Grant does a nice job describing characters and specific settings. Her descriptions of the significant guilds are particularly atmospheric and striking. Nina is an easy character to root for thanks to her determination and resilience. The Tiger, meanwhile, a somewhat standard if enigmatic villain through much of the novel ends up much more complex than he at first seems.
However, I had some issues with the novel. One is that everything comes a bit too easily to Nina. That isn’t to say she doesn’t suffer consequences — some are especially terrible — but that there seems little she cannot do. She breaks into the most impossible of places with the greatest of ease, charms nearly all, is brilliant at long-term strategy and short-term improvising, etc. One of the pleasures of heists (and while this isn’t a “heist novel,” it has several heist characteristics) is the slow build-up, the planning, the execution, the inevitable wrinkle, etc., but here they’re pretty much introduced as a goal and then just as quickly completed. Even for a YA story, she’s a little too brilliantly competent.
There’s also no real character growth in her story, even with the (sometimes abrupt) jumps forward in time of several years. Other characters also lack depth, serving as basic villain, stalwart support, reluctant-but-won-over-by-her-plucky attitude support, or victim-of-her-plucky attitude love interest (three of them fall, unnecessarily implausibly, into this role). Though “love interest” overstates the case a bit, given that we only know they are that by Nina musing on how attractive they are or Ettie giggling over a brief interaction. Finally, the entire plot feels rushed.
The Court of Miracles is, as noted, a YA novel, and the younger end of its target market will probably be less bothered by the book’s flaws. Older ones, and adults, will certainly find themselves wishing for more fully-fleshed-out characterization and more of a sense of struggle/difficulty for the main character, but both groups will still mostly likely find themselves zipping through the story thanks to its quick pacing, intriguing guild structures and rules, and smooth flowing prose. As a first book in a trilogy (and this one does resolve itself enough so it can stand on its own if one wishes), it’s not a bad introduction to a world that is interesting enough to convince me to pick up book two, with hopes those weaker elements improve.