If you’ve read any popular young adult fantasy authors in the last few years, odds are you’ve encountered the work of Holly Black before. A New York Times bestselling writer who is probably best known for her “Folk of the Air” series, Black’s work is richly imagined, lushly written, and usually populated by an assortment of fairy folk with questionable, often sinister intentions. (But generally great cheekbones.) And her books are a blast—creative, propulsive narratives populated by an array of memorable characters you’ll either love immediately or love to hate, and the sort of addictive storytelling that means you’ll “accidentally” tear through one in the course of a day or two.
Book of Night may be Black’s first adult fantasy novel, but it contains many of the hallmarks that have made her writing so popular for years. There’s a prickly heroine, a twisty plot, and a central relationship that is something other than what it initially appears to be. But something about the contemporary, urban setting seems to free something in Black’s writing, allowing her to really dig into a story that is, at its heart, about trauma. From absentee parents and child abuse to toxic living situations and a magical system that involves no small amount of bodily mutilation, this is her messiest, most complicated book yet. (And I mean that in all the best ways.)
Set in a world in which it has only recently been discovered that some people can control and command their own shadows, popular consciousness and culture have become obsessed with so-called shadow magic. This has led to regular folks attempting to alter their shadows to grant new abilities or simply achieve cool cosmetic enhancements like having a shadow in the shape of a cat. (Admittedly? Kind of awesome.) Society’s elites, as is their wont, attempt to claim this power for their own, often offering large sums of money to those who can help replace their non-awakened shadows with those of a more magical or powerful variety.
Heroine Charlie Hall isn’t anyone’s role model—a con woman and a thief who can’t seem to say no to a challenge, she’s no angel, even when she’s at least attempting to be a better person. Having sworn off stealing things for a variety of unsavory gloamists (a fancy name for those who can control shadows and use them for various forms of magic), she’s working as a bartender, trying to convince her sister Posey to go to college, and making the best of things with her very normal if occasionally dull boyfriend Vince.
But when she’s inevitably drawn back into another scheme, her search for a missing object—the infamous Book of Night rumored to be full of the darkest sorts of shadow spells and rituals—will not only take over her life, it will put everything she loves at risk, forcing Charlie to decide who she is, and who she’s willing to become. Because in order to survive, she’ll have to confront every skeleton she was hoping to leave buried in her closet.
Black has spoken before about the ways that shifting to writing an adult novel has allowed her to explore more complex sorts of issues, such as the stagnation of adulthood and the ways we’re less able to adapt and change as we get older than perhaps we once were. And that’s honestly a big part of the reason Charlie feels so relatable as a heroine. Because even though you (probably?) can’t magically control your shadow, well, who among us hasn’t wondered what we were doing with our lives? Or questioned whether we were failing at this whole adulting thing?
The furthest thing from a starry-eyed ingenue, Charlie is a young woman who feels world-weary in the way that only comes with age and repeated disappointment. She’s made mistakes and learned that, more often than not, there are no magical fixes or do-overs, just consequences that run the gamut from the mundane (not being able to afford rent) to the physically painful (a former investigative target holding a potentially violent grudge).
Black is hardly the only successful YA author testing the waters of the adult contemporary fantasy space: Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House and Sarah J. Maas’ Crescent City are just two of the crossover titles that have hit it big in the past couple of years. But Black’s story is perhaps the one that feels the least like her previous work, which makes her trilogy one of the most interesting series on offer at the moment. It’s just such a departure for her and, as a result, feels like it could go anywhere.
Perhaps that’s why it does take a bit for Book of Night to find its groove—much of the first half of the book is dedicated to general character set-up, the broad strokes of world-building, and an explanation of this universe’s magical system that tends to err very heavily on the “show not tell” side, even when a bit of a primer on the rules and capabilities of shadow magic would be really helpful. Technically, there are several types of gloamists and a distinct hierarchy between them all, but I have to admit I’m still not entirely sure how to explain what they are or how they relate to one another.
Those readers who are looking to Book of Night for the romance of The Cruel Prince will also likely be disappointed. There are certainly surprising relationship developments throughout the story, as well as a couple of bombshell twists, but the sort of enemies to lovers adversarial dynamic that so many loved between Jude and Cardan isn’t present here. (There is some hope for the existence of something vaguely similar in the sequel we all assume is coming, but certainly not guaranteed.) Instead, this is a much more character rather than relationship driven tale—which isn’t a bad thing at all, but given the likely crossover audience from Black’s YA work, feels like something worth mentioning
Still, there’s plenty in Book of Night to hold your attention, and the story builds to an exciting climax that will certainly leave you crossing your fingers for a sequel.
Book of Night
is available now.
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.