They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. And that’s as evident in publishing as anything else. When a book hits it big, an inevitable glut of titles arrives on shelves that incorporate similar themes and tropes. Vampire fiction got a big boost with the success of Twilight. The Hunger Games introduced us to our dystopian era. We’re still reading books about magical teenagers thanks in large part to the Harry Potter franchise and high fantasy romance fans have an awful lot to thank Sarah J. Maas for. The point is, that popular formulas are as much a part of the world of books as they are any other form of media, and that’s not a bad thing. In fact, those formulas—especially when done well—are often incredibly fun. It’s part of the reason people keep reading the same sorts of stories over and over again.
If you follow the world of YA publishing at all, you may have heard of Lightlark, the YA debut from middle-grade author Alex Aster that is fairly reminiscent of the mid-2000s speculative fiction boom that gave us books like Divergent. A BookTok sensation, the novel has been on the receiving end of both significant hype and sudden criticism among readers online, all before its release date ever even arrived. Marketing materials have described the book as a mix of A Court of Thorns and Roses and the aforementioned The Hunger Games. Could the finished product ever live up to the idea of the book that seemed already firmly lodged in readers’ heads?
The answer is, of course, yes and no. To be clear: I enjoyed the heck out of Lightlark, which puts a fast-paced, entertaining spin on a familiar premise, throwing everything but the kitchen sink at its heroine as she struggles to break a curse and stay alive, and dropping a couple of bombshell twists in the novel’s final third that promise the inevitable sequel will be just as entertaining a ride. I may or may not have accidentally stayed up until 2 am one night finishing it. (I totally did.) Aster’s book is a melting pot of things you’ve read before but combined in such a way that nevertheless feels fun and propulsive. (And that is more than capable of covering up some of its more obvious flaws.)
Lightlark follows the story of Isla Crown, the ruler of Wildling, one of six realms fighting to break an ancient curse that is damaging their islands and harming their citizens in specific and terrible ways. For example, the people of Wildling are gifted in nature-based abilities but forced to eat hearts in order to survive, and they all end up killing those they fall in love with. The people of Starling never live past 25, and the residents of Sunling can only go out at night, otherwise the sun’s rays will kill them.
Every 100 years, each kingdom must take part in the Centennial, a event where their rulers come together to try and unravel the damaging curses that are destroying their realms—all while putting their own lives at risk. Because for the curse to finally be broken, one of the rulers must die. It should be noted, however, that although many people have compared this book to The Hunger Games, it’s not quite a correct description, as the Centennial encourages cooperation and collaboration to solve the meaning of an ancient prophecy as much as it does fights to the death. (In fact, apparently it’s possible for everyone to survive the Centennial, it just means that their realms will remain cursed for another hundred years.)
Isla has trained her entire life to survive this moment, kept in isolated seclusion by the guardians that taught her to both fight and scheme, but nothing could have truly prepared her for her arrival at Lightlark, where she is immediately sucked into inter-realm politics, a search for an ancient artifact that may offer her a way out of the competition entirely, and an array of complicated relationships with several of the other rulers, none of whom can be entirely trusted.
As the Centennial begins, Isla forges relationships with unlikely partners, including Grimshaw, the leader of the hated Nightshade kingdom, and Celeste, the youthful ruler of the Starlings. As her carefully laid plans are repeatedly thwarted by circumstances both in and out of her control, Isla will have to risk her life on the hunt for the heart of the island, a journey which will reveal many secrets about Lightlark’s past—as well as her own.
As heroines go, Isla is relatively unremarkable if generally likeable, the next in a long line of Chosen One leading ladies who turn out to have a destiny that’s much bigger than they ever could have imagined. (As well as some smoking chemistry with a dark, vaguely villain-coded love interest.) There are plenty of twists in the back half of the book, many of which eagle-eyed readers will see coming from a mile away. As I said, this story is full of familiar beats and tropes, which will either delight or annoy you, depending on whether they are the sort of narrative elements you enjoy. But at the end of the day, Lightlark is a story built from very familiar pieces, but assembled in such a way that the ride through them still often manages to surprise.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.