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Book Review: The Darkening by Sunya Mara

Book Review: The Darkening by Sunya Mara

Vesper Vale is the daughter of failed revolutionaries. Ever since her mother was sentenced to death, she’s been on the run with her father, living a life hidden away from the Queen’s soldiers on the edges of a Storm that surrounds the city and curses anyone it touches. When the soldiers arrive on their doorstep, Vesper and her father are forced to flee once more. But the elite warriors known as The Wardana – led by Prince Dalca – soon catch up to Vesper’s father, who gives himself up so Vesper can escape.

With her father imprisoned and the Storm becoming more erratic by the day, Vesper arms herself with her father’s book of dangerous experimental magic known as ikons. Joining forces with a double agent who’s infiltrated the Wardana ranks, Vesper lies her way into the Prince’s right-hand squad of soldiers. She’s willing to do anything to save her father – even cheating her way into the Prince’s heart, which might not be quite as cold as she thinks it is. But when she learns that there’s more to the story of her mother’s death, Vesper’s mission becomes entangled with that of the Dalca’s, and they must learn to trust each other if they have any chance of beating the Storm that plagues their city.

Sunya Mara’s debut YA fantasy novel The Darkening is a book of two halves. The first half introduces a fierce revolutionary hell-bent on saving what she holds most dear, and a desperate Prince determined to do the same. Their motives might be different but their objectives are essentially the same, and the early chapters of Vesper and Dalca becoming acquainted with each other, whilst hiding their true intentions, are full of the kind of sparky, slightly hostile bantering that populates all the best YA fantasy novels. There’s lots of hiding, lying and pretending, building the tension as Vesper works her way to her father and Dalca tries to figure out why his newest recruit looks at him like she despises him. Which of course she does, though not for too long…

To affect the world with a word? With just a symbol? It makes men greedy. They begin to think they can rewrite fate. That they can hold the very sun in their hands.”

Slowly, and enjoyably, Vesper and Dalca grow to respect and care for each other. They even start to trust each other too, seeking answers in the Storm along with Dalca’s friends and fellow Wardana, Cas and Izamel. But just as they’re coming together as a team, something happens to rip them apart, and that’s where the story begins to unravel slightly. As the pace of the story ramps up, the coherence of the narrative disintegrates. Characters make decisions that either don’t make sense or aren’t given ample explanation, and a plot that felt so plausible and believable, suddenly seems contrived and confusing.

There’s almost too much happening in the latter half of the novel, the threads so loose that instead of being able to invest in the story, you’re too busy just trying to keep up with what’s happening. It’s not disrupting enough to ruin the novel’s early promise, but it does take away from the smoothness of the narrative and the continued ability to connect with the characters. And these are three-dimensional characters you want to follow to the end, to see if they can save the ones they love and not destroy themselves in the process. It’s a testament to Mara’s emotive descriptions and imaginative world building that readers still care whether Vesper and Dalca live or die, even as their respective rationale seems muddled and unclear.

The Darkening is a debut with a lot of potential. The plot is thrilling and emotionally charged, and the epilogue promises a sequel that’s bound to offer even more brutal fights, conflicted romance and complicated allegiances. If it can hold on to the clarity and intrigue of the first half of this novel, it’ll be a book that’s worth looking forward to.

★★★

The Darkening was published by Hodder & Stoughton on 5 July 2022

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