Book of Night
(2022) Holly Black, Del Rey, £16.99, hrdbk, 306pp, ISBN 978-1-529-10237-6
At the time of writing Holly Black is perhaps best known as the very popular author of over 30 Young Adult fantasy novels such as Red Glove. So, the Book of Night is interesting in that it is the author’s first novel designed to be read by adults.
Described as “a modern dark fantasy”, Book of Night leans more into the world of urban fantasy. Set in the present day, Black’s characters exist in a world where gloamists are now part of everyday life. It’s an interesting idea that those who know their Hans Christian Andersen may recognise (the original fairy tale is even referenced in the novel.) Putting it simply, gloamists are magicians who have quickened their own shadow, making it into a living thing. Not everyone has the power to do this, but those who can are often highly-prized. Fed by the gloamist’s blood, the shadows have the power to do things separately from the gloamist’s body – like steal things, possess people and make them act like a puppet, even murder. The only thing that stops them is onyx, which has the power to make shadows solid.
To this set-up, enter Charlie Hall, a young girl down on her luck, having made another in a long line of bad decisions, holding down a bar job because she needs the money. She has a troubled past but seems settled working at the Retreat, a dominatrix bar owned by Odette and with a gloamist by the name of Balthazar in a shadow parlour in the basement.
Balthazar is always trying to get Charlie to take up her old ways of breaking and entering, but she is determined to leave behind her previous life as a thief and follow a more legitimate lifestyle. She lives with her younger sister Posey and her taciturn enigmatic boyfriend Vince Damiano. She even has a cat amusingly named Lucipurrr.
One the way home from work one night she finds a body in an alleyway. Its shadow has been shredded and the body eviscerated. The shredded shadow can be a problem, as they often roam the streets as ‘Blights’, shadows detached from their original host constantly in search of food.
The death seems to be related to a lost book, the Liber Noctrum, an ancient grimoire that holds secret information much prized by gloamists, and that they are desperate to retrieve. Charlie finds herself reluctantly drawn back to her life of criminality, being forced to use her skills as a thief to find and return the Liber Noctrum to the gloamists.
The book then has lots of to-ing and fro-ing between the present and the past as we discover how Charlie got here to this point. Charlie not only has to deal with the current situation but also her past, when she discovers that the two things are connected.
Although the title initially sounds like something from a Tolkien-esque medieval fantasy, Book of Night is most definitely a contemporary urban fantasy, filled with cars, bars and decay. The tone is decidedly grown-up, with drugs, sex and bad language part of the make-up, and a few gruesome discoveries along the way. I did wonder if the author would overcompensate a little on the adult part, being freed from her Young Adult responsibilities but, generally, the book is not too explicit.
What I found worked best was that Holly does well to create Charlie as a complicated character, showing that she is not always nice but perhaps understandable, given her background and lifestyle. She lies, she cheats, she gets drunk, she cons people, all of which she freely admits, even when she’s not proud of it. She is also good at being a thief, something of which Charlie is secretly rather proud.
The other characters are less well-developed, although you might expect this from a first-person narrative. Some of the minor characters became a little interchangeable, although the gloamist’s elite leaders, a group known as the Cabal, and some of society’s up-and-coming gloamists, such as the millionaire Lionel Salt who wants to become one of the select company, are memorable.
After an early stage build-up, where much time is spent setting the scene, I found it to be an exciting and engaging read, with Holly clearly showing her talents as an imaginative writer.
The ending ties things up pretty well – perhaps too conveniently for some readers – although there’s a little twist at the end that leaves the conclusion open for successive novels to pick up on. It should happen – the book has already been a Number 1 bestseller on the Sunday Times bestseller list.
It is clearly the first of what the author and publisher would hope to be a series. Personally, I would be happy to read more, should it occur. Whilst the story is perhaps not one that pushes the boundaries of genre fiction, it is done well. Despite this area of the market being rather full and very competitive, Holly’s story has enough originality and style to make it a much better-than-average example of the urban fantasy genre.
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