Numo is a drake, a type of homunculus created by alchemy from a mandrake root. He is, to be more precise, a stoker: a slave whose purpose is to stoke the hypocaust of his owning family. Numo's life is wood and fires and the colors of flames, not running messages to the arena for his master. (That may be part of the message his master was sending.) Falling desperately in love at first sight with an infandus fighting in the arena is definitely not part of his normal job.
Hammerfist is an infandus, the other type of homunculus. They aren't made from mandrake root. They're made from humans who have been sentenced to transmogrification. Hammerfist has had a long and successful career in the arena, but she's starting to suffer from the fall, which means she's remembering that she used to be human. This leads to inevitable cognitive decline and eventually death. In Hammerfist's case, it also leads to plotting revolution against the alchemists who make homunculi and use them as slaves.
Numo is not the type to plot revolution. His slave lobe is entirely intact, which means the idea of disobeying his owners is hard to even understand. But he is desperately in love with Hammerfist (even though he doesn't understand what love is), and a revolution would make her happy, so he'll gamely give it a try.
Numo is not a very good revolutionary, but the alchemists are also not very bright, and have more enemies than just the homunculi. And Numo is remarkably persistent and stubborn once he wraps his head around an idea.
Okay, first, when I say that you need a high tolerance for body horror to enjoy this book, I am Seriously Not Kidding. I don't think I have ever read a book with a higher density of maiming, mutilation, torture, mind control, vivisection, and horrific biological experiments. I spent most of this book wincing, and more than a few parts were more graphic than I wanted to read. Hahn's style is light and bubbly and irrepressible and doesn't dwell on the horror, which helps, but if you have a strong visual imagination and body integrity violations bother you, this may not be the book for you.
That said, although this book is about horrible things, this is not a horror novel. It's a fantasy about politics and revolution, about figuring out how to go forward after horrible things happen to you, about taking dramatic steps to take control of your own life, about the courage to choose truth over a familiar lie, and about how sympathy and connection and decency may be more important than love. It's also a book full of gruesome things described in prose like this:
Her eyes were as red as bellowed embers. Her blood-spattered mane stood up a foot or more from her head and neck, cresting between her shoulders like a glorious wave of shimmering heat. Her slobbering mouth was an orangey oven of the purest fire, a font of wondrousness gaping open down to the little iron plate stamped above her pendulous bosoms.
and emotions described like this:
And he'd had enough. Numo was taut as a wire, worn as a cliff face, tired as a beermonger on the solstice. One more gust of wind and he'd snap like a shoddy laundry pole.
This is the book for simile and metaphor lovers. Hahn achieves a rhythm with off-beat metaphor and Numo's oddly-polite mental voice that I found mesmerizing and weirdly cheery.
Except for Numo and Hammerfist, nearly everyone in this book is awful, even if they don't seem so at first. (And Hammerfist is often so wrapped up in depression and self-loathing to be kind of awful herself.) Next to the body horror, that was the aspect of this story I struggled with the most. But Numo's stubborn determination and persistent decency pulled me through, helped by the rare oasis of a supporting character I really liked. Bollix is wonderful (although I'm rather grumpy about how her story turns out). Sangja isn't exactly wonderful — he can be as awful to others as most of the people in this story — but for me he was one of the most sympathetic characters and the one I found myself rooting for.
(I'm going to be coy about Sangja's nature and role, since I think it's a spoiler, but I greatly appreciated the way Hahn portrayed Sangja in this book. He is so perfectly and exactly fits the implications of his nature in this world, and the story is entirely matter-of-fact about it.)
Hahn said somewhere on-line (which I cannot now find and therefore cannot get exactly right) that part of the motivation for this story was the way the beast becomes human at the end of Beauty and the Beast stories, against all of our experience in the real world. Harm and change isn't magically undone; it's something that you still have to live with past the end of the story. This is, therefore, not a purely positive good-triumphs type of story, but I found the ending touching and oddly satisfying (although I wish the cost hadn't been so high).
I am, in general, dubious of the more extravagant claims about the power of self-publishing to bypass gatekeepers, mostly because I think traditional publishing gatekeepers do a valuable job for the reader. This book is one of the more convincing exceptions I've seen. It's a bit of a sprawling mess in places and it doesn't pull together the traditional quest line, which combined with the body horror outside the horror genre makes it hard for me to imagine a place for it in a traditional publishing line-up. But it's highly original, weirdly delightful, and so very much itself that I'm glad I read it even if I had to wince through it.
This is, to be honest, not really my thing, and I'm not sure I'd read another book just like it. But I think some people with more interest in body horror than I do are going to love this book, and I'm not at all unhappy I read it. If you want your devoted, odd, and angstful complex love story mixed with horrific images, gallows humor, and unexpected similes, well, there aren't a lot of books out there that meet that description. This is one. Give it a try.