Warning: This review contains spoilers.
The Darkening is a thrilling debut novel from Sunya Mara, a young adult fantasy that falls in the footsteps of books like The Hunger Games and City of Bones. Although it doesn’t fully distinguish itself from similar books in a way that would advance its premise, The Darkening does achieve a similar impact nonetheless — one that leaves readers with anticipation for what happens next.
Vesper Vale is a fifth-ringer, a member of the lowest class in a city divided by rings. The fifth ring is the closest to the Storm, a supernatural force in which beasts thrive. Those who are cursed by the Storm bear a social stigma. Vesper’s status as someone on the border means that she’s virtually powerless against the Regia, the ruling power, as well as Prince Dalca, the heir to the throne.
Prince Dalca himself is at the forefront of the Wardana, the city’s protectors who use ikonomancy, the world’s magic, to fight against beasts that come from the Storm. When her father is taken by the Wardana for illegally performing ikonomancy, Vesper devises a plan to disguise herself and become a Wardana apprentice to figure out where her father is. Along the way, she meets and gets to know Casvian and Izamal, the prince’s Wardana companions, and falls in love with Dalca as they attempt to save the city from the Storm.
The Storm’s associations with loss and grief are extremely well-done, and Mara does a tremendously thorough job of examining each character’s internal turmoils. Dalca’s pressure as heir to the throne, Casvian’s struggle to become his father’s ideal son, Izamal’s resentment of his status — all of it is so heartbreaking and pain-inducing for audiences. It’s clear that Mara has extensively channeled all of her literary strength into envisioning how those psychological burdens physically manifest in the Storm. Mara’s expressive prose is hard-hitting when it needs to be, especially in depicting the scrappy strength of Vesper.
The incorporation of class struggles with the different rings is also a well-done part of the novel. Mara paints a vivid picture of class inequality through the division between those who can harness ikonomancy as power and those who have been cursed by the Storm. This picture blends social commentary with the imagery of a city divided by rings.
Ikons and ikonomancy are the magic system that The Darkening structures itself around. They’re also what make the book all the more interesting, especially because of how they’re used. Much like the runes used by Shadowhunters in Cassandra Clare’s novels, ikons are symbols that, when drawn, hold magical power. The way they play out in Vesper’s journey to save the city is full of dramatic potential, especially during the trial scenes.
On the romantic side, Vesper’s attraction to Dalca feels quite bland as the relationship wasn’t given much time to develop, although this dynamic did become somewhat more exciting towards the end. With the angst that comes from betrayal, Mara elevates the romance by weaving its demise in with the external conflict. The parallels in physical and emotional destruction have the most absorbing emotional impact compared to other scenes. However, there still could have been more explanation as to Dalca’s inconsistency as a person.
Reading the book, it felt like one moment Dalca was into Vesper and the next he didn’t care if she suffered because of him. The whole flip in attraction was a little tenuous to be built on a misunderstanding, partly because it was clear that Dalca refused to believe Vesper’s innocence. He deliberately misunderstood her character once, to put it casually, the going got rough. With that, it feels difficult to comprehend if it was ever love at all. The ending does mildly redeem Dalca as a love interest, but the follow-up in their romance would need to truly illustrate Dalca’s investment in Vesper and his willingness to atone for his betrayal. Otherwise, the relationship between Dalca and Vesper would completely disrespect Vesper’s sacrifice for both Dalca and for their world.
The Great King and Great Queen storyline was brought in too late towards the end and would have benefited Vesper’s journey if it preceded it as a prologue of sorts. The mythic proportions of the backstory behind the Storm are incredibly fascinating. They serve as context for the underlying causes of magic, which deepen the world and are a remarkable feat on the part of Mara as a fantasy author. Yet the way the backstory was revealed in the second half of the book came abruptly and didn’t fully allow readers to reflect on the significance of the Storm as a metaphor.
As a reader, it was also difficult to not be invested in the whole host possession element, which was an enthralling concept. In fact, the end of The Darkening felt almost impossible to put down just because there were so many new and impressive additions to the plot. One can’t help but wonder what it would be like if they were present earlier.
It’s safe to say that The Darkening is a tale that asserts that it doesn’t have to be in a class of its own in order to be significant, though it doesn’t particularly reverberate as a clear, easily unparalleled concept. Instead, employing well-loved ideas and dynamics is a much-needed means of narrative practice as well. For that, The Darkening does deserve praise for showing that one can use the tools of others to create one’s own outstanding story.