Kelly Andrew’s debut opens with a dedication that reads: ‘For anyone who knows what it is to feel alone in a crowd, or to draw solace from daydreams.’ Those few lines encapsulate not only why Andrew writes, but what The Whispering Dark is all about too. It’s a story about loss and loneliness and never quite fitting in. But it’s also an otherworldly novel that envelops readers in dreamy dark academia vibes. Throw in some paranormal thrills and a forbidden romance that crackles with tension, and you’ve got yourself a truly atmospheric and enthralling autumn read.
Delaney Meyers-Petrov is tired of being treated as some fragile thing – a breakable girl made of glass – just because she’s deaf. So when she’s accepted into a prestigious program at Godbole University that trains students to slip between parallel worlds, she jumps at the chance to prove herself. But Delaney, or Lane as she’s affectionately called, struggles to assimilate to student life. Falling behind before she’s even started, Lane faces pressure from her professors who won’t accommodate her disability. Then there’s pretentious undergrad teaching assistant Colton Price, who seems to despise Lane on first sight.
But this is a story told from both Lane and Colton’s perspectives, allowing readers to be privy to the snarky and aloof TA’s tempestuous thoughts too. And hate is the last thing on Colton Price’s mind when it comes to the new girl. Despite being warned to keep his distance, Colton is mysteriously drawn to Lane – and she to him. Yet when a Godbole student turns up dead, revealing an unsettling pattern of gruesome fatalities, the two are forced into a tenuous alliance that will unveil both their secrets and their true feelings. But in opening the doors between worlds, Lane and Colton leave themselves vulnerable to an old and nameless entity that threatens to tear them apart.
She’d been tugged along after the shadows, like a fly lured to the glittering orb of a silk-spun web. Drawn to the topmost step of the cellar, where darkness seeped up the stairs like ink. Drawn to the woods at twilight, where moonlight played between trees. Drawn to the mirror glass of her window, where night pressed its hungry face against the panes. “I see you watching me,” she’d whisper, and feel a sickly sort of thrill. “Are you lonely, too?”
With its haunting themes and eerie aesthetic, The Whispering Dark is the kind of book that’s best read with the lights dipped low and the rain pattering against the window. There’s a brooding, dreamlike feel to the story – part beautiful reverie, part forbidding nightmare – that really lends itself to this time of the year. Andrew’s lyrical writing curls off the pages and fills readers’ senses. Certain lines are so expressive and eloquent that you want to pause and reread them, just to feel the true weight of the words and their meaning. It allows readers to become completely immersed in Lane and Colton’s conflicted feelings towards each other, made more complicated by the mysterious external forces pushing them together and pulling them apart.
The intense and turbulent romance at the heart of the story is all consuming, which does mean that the paranormal aspect suffers slightly. There’s little explanation into Godbole and its unusual curriculum. Students jump between parallel universes and perform mystical practices like divination, but the history and lore of the book’s world remains hazy. Part of this is due to the mystery that propels the story; revealing too much too soon unravels the secrets that bind these characters. And whilst some of the twists aren’t as easily disguised as they’re meant to be, the dark thrill of this book is in gathering the different pieces of the puzzle and slotting it all together – particularly the bone-deep connection between Lane and Colton, which is the novel’s driving force. In that respect, this is very much a romance first, fantasy second kind of book.
Though diversity in fiction has come a long way in the last few years, it still feels refreshing to read about a central character who doesn’t let their disability hold them back. Lane’s deafness is a vital part of the plot, but she never comes across as weak. Kelly Andrew’s lived-in experience adds an authenticity to her protagonist and the way she moves through the book’s world (or worlds, in this case), as well as the way the world perceives her. Lane is a meeker, more subdued character than a lot of fantasy heroines, and her personality is a complex contrast to Colton, who wears his arrogance and disdain like armour. They’re both intriguing characters in their own right, but together their fractious dynamic is magnetic.
If you don’t chase the whys and hows of the paranormal plot too much, this is a story that will reignite your love for dark academia – or serve to fuel the romanticism even further. With its moody atmosphere, unnerving plot and its intricately woven romance, The Whispering Dark more than earns its place amongst this year’s best contemporary fantasy books.
The Whispering Dark was published by Gollancz on 20 October 2022