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Book Review: Darker by Four by June CL Tan

Book Review: Darker by Four by June CL Tan

Welcome to a shadowy world of vengeance, monsters and magic, where human characters who are bound by destiny and driven by love, desperation and revenge seek to defy their fate. The book is Darker by Four, the first book in an all-new epic fantasy adventure duology series from Jade Fire Gold author June CL Tan, and it’s one that proves instantly compelling, throwing readers headfirst into a fantastical mystery that brings together gods, mythology, fate and destiny. From its intriguing prologue through to its dark twists and the dynamic mix of characters who are both caught up in and pulling the strings of this story, Darker by Four swiftly comes together to deliver the kind of immersive narrative escape that all the best fantasy novels – this one included – do so well.

For the last four years, Rui has had just one goal in mind: honing her magic to avenge her mother’s death. Yiran is the black sheep of an illustrious family, the only one born without magic, and forever living with the disdain of his powerful grandfather. Nikai is a Reaper, serving the Fourth King of Hell, but when his master disappears, the underworld begins to crumble, and if the King is not found, the human world will be next.

When an accident causes Rui’s power to transfer to Yiran, everything turns upside down. With Rui’s magic running in his veins, Yiran finally feels like he belongs and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to keep hold of it. Without her magic, Rui has no tool for vengeance, and a strange new power is rising to take its place right as Rui learns that she alone might hold the key to finding the missing death god. As paths begin to intersect in the shadows, three lives bound by fate must rise against destiny before the barrier between worlds falls and all Hell breaks loose – literally.

The ticking of the wall clock grew loud in her head. It felt like she was running out of time. She wanted her magic back. She wanted her revenge. But the stakes were higher than that now.”

Among others, Darker by Four has been compared to the Shadowhunter Chronicles and it’s easy to see why. This is a world where a community of magical individuals are trained to wield powerful weapons against monstrous creatures who are posing a threat to humanity, and where three young people are quickly swept up in a battle bigger than any of them could have ever expected. Despite these familiar notes, however, this novel also feels like something completely new and exciting, drawing from Chinese mythology and diaspora folklore to create a story that’s rich, layered, and expansive. This world is expertly crafted, the characters are complex and nuanced, and the narrative is packed with secrets and intrigue that will have you second guessing every character, every decision and every motive.

Although there were multiple POVs throughout this novel, it’s clear (at this point at least) that Rui and Yiran are the more prominent voices in this story, and both of them offer up compelling narratives from the get-go. Rui is guarded and focused on her one goal, yet her strength, determination and kindness is evident throughout too. It’s easy to root for Rui on her journey, even as some of her decisions begin to impact on those around her, and not always in the best ways. Yiran, meanwhile, initially feels like more of a cold, aloof character, but it quickly becomes clear that he’s living with a lot of hurt and pain, and his desire to prove himself is both heart-wrenching and relatable.

Rui and Yiran may be the human heart at the centre of this story, but there are so many wonderful supporting characters that expand this world and their relationships too. Nikai, of course, is our initial entry to the Underworld, acting as our eyes and ears within this new dimension even as he wrestles with his own unknown past and the mysteries it holds. Then we are also introduced to the Kings of Hell themselves, the monstrous Revenants, the deadly Hybrids and the mages and practitioners of the underground magic community too, and the adorable, golden retriever of a character that is Zizi among them.

In many ways, Darker by Four feels like an introduction to a wonderful new fantasy world, and there are certainly enough teasers and hints to keep readers’ appetites whetted for book two when it’s released. By the end of this novel, I was just left wanting more: more of this world, more from these characters, and more of the hints of forbidden love, challenged friendships and dark deals that were starting to be stirred up in the closing chapters.

Still, none of that takes away from the fact that Darker by Four is a thrilling whirlwind of a novel in its own right. This is a dark and intricate story that is best discovered for yourself, with lots of narrative threads to unpick and unravel as the story continues, and so much to enjoy about the journey too. Overall, this feels like a fantastic start to a series that holds a lot of promise, and if this first book is even just a small indication of what’s coming next, then I already cannot wait to return to this world again and again.


Darker By Four is published by Hodderscape on 2 April 2024

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