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If books were judged solely on their covers – and when it comes to browsing the shelves in bookshops, they so often are – Shadowscent: The Darkest Bloom would be an instant chart topper. From the coppery foil flowers decorating the edge, to the perfume decanter surrounded by delicate swirls of blue smoke, it’s a delicious hint of the beguiling and intriguing tale held within the pages of P. M. Freestone’s fantasy debut.

Taking place in the empire of Aramtesh, Shadowscent is a dual narrative book that follows seventeen-year-old Rakel, whose talent for scentlore can’t save her dying father. Determined to find a cure, Rakel heads to Aphorai City, bargaining her way into a scent trial that leads to her detention at the head priestess’s temple. Congregating in the city at the same time is Ash, the loyal Shield to the visiting Crown Prince, and the book’s engaging second perspective. He’s grown up with the Prince and they’re friends bordering on brothers, but his duty will always be to put the heir to the throne’s life above his own.

When the temple’s precious scented flowers go up in flames and the Prince is found poisoned, Rakel is the prime suspect. She manages to escape, setting out to find an elusive cure, not knowing if it actually exists or if she’s risking everything – including her father’s survival – on a myth. Of course she’s not alone for long; Ash tracks her escape from the city and disobeys orders to help Rakel find an antidote for the only friend he’s ever known. With rangers hunting them, Rakel and Ash have a race against time to save themselves, the people they love and, on a much bigger scale, the entire empire, which is being sabotaged from the inside.

Some books centre around complex characters and complicated relationships. Others rely on clever twists and turns to keep readers hooked on the plot. Shadowscent is a story that’s all about the atmosphere, conjuring a palpable world in which the reader becomes intoxicated by the intense aromas that Freestone has so beautifully captured on page. That’s not to say it doesn’t have multifaceted characters or unexpected twists, but whilst the atmosphere is set from the very first page, the relationships and wider world building – including some intricate mythical history – take a while to establish themselves as aspects of the story to really care about.

As the unlikely team of Rakel and Ash settle into each other’s company, their real personalities are given room to breathe, and they bounce off each other with playful banter and a grudging-turned-genuine respect. Individually they’re intriguing characters but they’re much more compelling when they’re working as a team, whether they’re fighting giant butterflies or trying to solve ancient puzzles. And that’s indicative of the novel as a whole – it’s a collection of ingredients that create an alluring concoction when stirred together. Freestone has set up a rich world that’s on the cusp of massive political, spiritual and social change, and the magic surrounding Ash only adds to the mystery and mythology.

Inventive, romantic and bursting with fragrant adventure, Shadowscent: The Darkest Bloom is a debut that introduces an exciting author to the YA fantasy world. It’s a feast for the senses, ending on a dramatic cliffhanger that promises another scent-filled quest in the sequel.

★★★★

Shadowscent: The Darkest Bloom was published by Scholastic on 7 February 2019

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