Having written over thirty fantasy novels for children, teens and young adults, Holly Black is perhaps best known for Folk of the Air, a YA urban fantasy series set in a lavish and dangerous fae world. Black’s debut adult novel, Book of Night, shares that same wicked blend of secrets, lies and murder, sitting comfortably in the urban fantasy genre, but if you’re expecting it to be anything like its faerie predecessor, you ought to leave those expectations at the door.
Charlie Hall is a thief for hire. Or at least she was. In a world where a person’s shadow can be manipulated, sold, stolen or severed, Charlie has made bad decision after bad decision since she was old enough to make them for herself. But she’s determined to remain on the straight and narrow, working as a bartender to earn enough money to send her magic-obsessed sister Posy to university, and living a quiet existence with her stoic boyfriend, Vince, whose own shadow was stolen from him before they met. Charlie’s attempt at distancing herself from her past mistakes is hindered when an old acquaintance from high school asks Charlie to track down someone who’s gone missing.
It’s whilst looking into the disappearance that Charlie comes face to face with a terrible figure from her past, who gives her an ultimatum she can’t refuse. Dragged back into the corrupt business she thought she’d escaped, and pitted against magicians, manipulators, mercurial billionaires and her own skewed sense of right and wrong, Charlie must find the mysterious secret book that everyone is searching for. But there are those who will freely kill to get their hands on it – and Charlie must be smarter than all of them if she wants to not only survive but to protect the people she loves too.
There’s always been something wrong with Charlie Hall. Crooked, from the day she was born. Never met a bad decision she wasn’t willing to double down on. Had fingers made fo picking pockets, a tongue for lying, and a shrivelled cherry pit for a heart.”
Whilst you shouldn’t expect the story and characters in Book of Night to be anything like Folk of the Air, the one thing you can absolutely expect is a quality of writing that instantly immerses you in Charlie’s dark and shadowy world. Holly Black’s world building is vivid and incredibly transportive, blending an urban setting with dangerous magic inspired by the author’s fascination with second selves. Through literal shadows, Black explores the darker parts of human nature – the angry, shameful and frightening parts of ourselves that we bury down deep and try to ignore. This element of the book allows Charlie to grow with the story and her development from beginning to end feels entirely natural.
The Charlie we meet at the start of the book is someone who’s done bad things but is desperately trying to be better – for her sister, for her boyfriend, for herself. Yet even as Charlie attempts to stay out of trouble, it’s clear from her snarky, belligerent personality that trouble is going to find her anyway. She’s an outcast with a self-destructive streak, but she’s immensely likeable too – and more kind-hearted than she’d have anyone believe, as demonstrated in the way she looks after her sister, or the soft spot she has for Vince. As the story progresses, it becomes clear why Charlie is the way she is: wily, strong-minded and unwilling to back down even when the odds are stacked against her, which they frequently are.
The complicated relationship between sisters is something that Black has always written well and that’s true here too. Charlie and Posy love each other but there’s friction between them – on Charlie’s side because she doesn’t want Posy dabbling in dangerous magic, and on Posy’s side, because she doesn’t like being babied and because her desperate attempts at gaining magic have so far proved fruitless. Vince is the calming, steady influence in Charlie’s life, but everyone has secrets, even someone as seemingly uncomplicated as Vince.
With such intricate phraseology and such a complex magic system to unfold, it’s not really a surprise that wider elements of the story feel a little under explained and undeveloped, particularly the history of shadow magic and the very many villainous factions working against each other. The pace also lacks a certain consistency – the thrillingly breathless final chapters let down slightly by the slow first half. But given this is a book with huge potential for a sequel and/or series – the surprise end is pure Holly Black magic – it feels like there are so many ways Charlie’s story could go, with even more room to delve into the world of shadow magic. That said, it reads perfectly well as a standalone too.
With echoes of Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House and fuelled by Holly Black’s wonderfully limitless imagination, Book of Night is a whip-smart and mysterious novel that successfully marks the author’s first foray into adult books. As with all of Black’s novels, it’s sure to win the hearts and minds of many a reader.
Book of Night is published by Del Rey on 3 May 2022