This review contains minor spoilers for book two in The Darkening duology.
When the first book in Sunya Mara’s intricately crafted fantasy duology drew to a close, the fates of Vesper Vale and Prince Dalca were uncertain. They’d walked into the terrifying storm and emerged victors of the cursed darkness that had claimed their city. But at what cost? That’s the question at the heart of book two, The Lightstruck, which picks up three years after Vesper became a vessel for the Great Queen.
Pulled from the land of the dead with the Queen’s power coursing through her body, Vesper wakes from a thousand days of slumber to find the world a changed place. She sacrificed everything to save her city from the storm but whilst the darkness that shadowed the streets, cursing anyone it touched, has disappeared, it’s been replaced by an even more ominous threat. Having rejected Dalca as his vessel, the Great King and his army of lightstruck – once regular citizens who’ve fallen under the monarch’s control – have besieged the city. Now blinding light sweeps across the streets, claiming more and more indoctrinated followers by the day.
As she grapples with the Queen’s power and struggles to understand what the King’s endgame is, Vesper faces a growing chasm between her and Dalca – the prince she swore never to love. Yet this version of Dalca isn’t the same prince of three years ago. Like Vesper, he’s crushed by the choices he’s been forced to make and haunted by his mistakes. He’s physically and mentally exhausted too. But faced with a city teetering on the edge of ruin, Vesper and Dalca must battle through their pain and fight to rescue the only home they’ve ever known – a home that those around them seem to have already given up on.
Do you require all the world’s love as proof of your worth? Must they all honor you before you can honor yourself?”
It’s always a little nerve-racking picking up a sequel when you had mixed feelings about the novel that came before. Whilst I loved the imaginative world building, complicated allegiances and emotionally driven, three-dimensional characters of The Darkening, the complex plot lost some of its lucidity in the latter half of the book. Thankfully, with some added context, The Lightstruck untangles the chaos and finds a much more coherent balance between the external and internal struggles the characters face. It might forgo the conflicted romance that fuelled the first book (something romantasy readers will mourn), but it’s a narrative choice that makes perfect sense when the characters risk not only losing their city but the minds of those they care about too.
This is an epic fantasy story with a very real threat – one that warps a sense of goodness and light, turning it into something sinister. With the elaborate world and character relationships already firmly established, the focus of The Lightstruck turns towards how Vesper and Dalca – with the help of reader favourites Cas and Izamel – overcome a power that’s older and stronger than the four of them combined. The King isn’t an openly evil adversary who threatens to destroy and curse. Instead, he offers liberation and promises redemption – two things that almost all the characters of this book are searching for. But both Vesper and Dalca have fought hard for their agency; they’re not going to give up the city they battled and almost died for. The desperation and burden they both feel is palpable and there’s not a single moment of the book where you’re not rooting for them.
Sacrifice has always been a big part of Mara’s story and it continues to be a running theme throughout The Lightstruck. Dalca is the city’s prince and protector, whilst Vesper is worshipped as the Stormender, but what does it truly mean to be a hero? And how much more of themselves can they sacrifice to the fight before there’s nothing left to give? Mara fills the novel with so much heightened emotion built on loss, grief and responsibility, but there’s also a wonderful sense of continued camaraderie between Vesper, Dalca, Cas and Izamel. They’ve all been through so much together and whilst they don’t always see eye-to-eye, they’d all die to protect each other. That’s what ultimately makes The Lightstruck such a breathlessly fast-paced, high-stakes read. Yes it has cinematic action sequences and a clever ikon magic system, but it’s the characters – and their genuinely good hearts – who make this a book worth investing in.
The Lightstruck is the kind of sequel I’d hoped it would be: exciting, surprising, at times heart-breaking and always engaging. It’s a novel that never loses its essential sense of hope, even when the situations and characters themselves feel utterly hopeless. It also credits readers with the intelligence they’re owed. Some YA fantasy novels err towards simplicity and wrap things up neatly. Sunya Mara gives readers a satisfying, cleverly written ending, whilst still leaving a little room for interpretation – a feel that the book might be over but the characters’ stories continue. And of all the characters in all the YA fantasy books, the central quartet here deserve a happy ending, whatever form that might take.
The Lightstruck was published by Hodderscape on 29 August 2023