Just as the heroine awakes, so should slumbering readers — if not to save the world once again, then to read about it. There’s one such mission in Sunya Mara’s The Lightstruck, the follow-up to last year’s young adult fantasy novel The Darkening. It’s the much-anticipated and authentically emotional conclusion to this beautifully-written duology.
The Lightstruck begins with Vesper waking up from her slumber, which she fell into after eliminating the Storm that once plagued her city. She now has the Great Queen’s powers after becoming the Queen’s vessel, leaving her to wonder if she’s anything significant without them. Although Vesper wakes up from her slumber being welcomed by most as the “Stormender” hero, there’s another looming threat: that of the Great King and his lightstruck, who are people that have come under the King’s influence and are now being controlled by him. Vesper must partner with Dalca, the prince who she loves and who betrayed her in the first book, to defeat the Great King and save their world from destruction.
Mara’s affinity for epic premises comes through again in The Lightstruck. From vivid fantastical battle sequences to trials, Mara ensures that the excitement is well-placed. The plot is also nimbly balanced with the more emotional arc about a girl who’s coming to terms with the challenges of being labeled a hero. The visual elements of the world Mara has created, with the “rings” of the city, are fascinating. That comes as no surprise from a writer who’s both worked as an illustrator and who regularly posts aesthetically appealing promotional videos (videos that are just as magical as the magic system in Mara’s stories).
One of the most intriguing themes in The Lightstruck is the concept of what comes after the hero returns home. Vesper has become the hero of her people. Yet, she also struggles with imposter syndrome and the pressures of living up to her people’s expectations. Her desire to show the world that she can save them once again as the hero is complicated by her own trauma from doing it before. Combined with the aftermath of the Storm’s absence, Mara achieves a dynamic infrastructure of intersecting stakeholders and potential storylines.
The romance between Vesper and Dalca does feel like it could take on more shape. Mara left readers with a wonderful cliffhanger not only with the ending of The Darkening, but with the thought that Dalca wanted to atone for his betrayal of Vesper in the first book. Although it was implied that this mission of atonement would take up a primary storyline in The Lightstruck, such a narrative doesn’t truly come to fruition in a way that might satisfy some readers.
A promising notion or loose end in The Darkening was the idea that Dalca would have to slowly earn Vesper’s forgiveness, but there isn’t a full sense that Vesper is truly angry with him in The Lightstruck. In fact, she seems to quickly forgive Dalca despite the extent of his crimes against her. It’s a hard thing to believe given that Dalca made Vesper into a villain so easily in the first book.
The rest of the “romance” doesn’t feel too much like one. There are a couple of moments where Dalca appears like he cares for Vesper, yet their relationship throughout much of The Lightstruck feels more like acquaintances, co-workers on the mission of saving their world and their people. Romance isn’t the focus of this journey — that’s completely understandable. However, it often feels like the story backs out at certain points, afraid to get truly vulnerable with Vesper and Dalca beyond surface-level affection. Had Mara allowed the romance of The Darkening to develop, the attraction between these two central characters might have been more evident. As it is, the ambiguity of the relationship weighs it down instead of contributing to it.
Although the relationship between these two characters might have needed more development, it’s hard to deny that Mara renders a deeply intimate portrait of Vesper in this book. Visually, it’s still difficult to get a sense of what Vesper looks like. In terms of Vesper’s interiority, however, Mara’s able to explore an immense amount of Vesper’s inner conflict without having it bog down the flow of the action. Mara’s understanding of story is especially pronounced in the literary cognizance required to navigate both the personal thoughts and the external plot.
It’s often cited in discussions of storytelling that a “good” story must take into consideration the stakes. Mara understands the importance of high stakes. She also knows how to elevate those stakes beyond the forces that propel them, to render the impact of stakes on a character, and to provide an ideological basis for their importance. In matters of channeling powers, The Lightstruck needs no vessel. It’s powerful enough to stand on its own.