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REVIEW: The Sweetest Dark by Shana Abé

Dear Ms. Abé,

As a longtime reader of your fantasy-romance Drakon series (books aimed at adults), I was eager to read your newest book, The Sweetest Dark, which is both related to the Drakon series, and the first book in a new series aimed at readers of YA.

You state on your website that The Sweetest Dark series stands alone and I very much agree that it can be read by readers who haven’t read your other books. In fact, I suspect that new readers may enjoy it more than I did. My knowledge of the earlier series was one of the things that got in the way of my reading pleasure.

The Sweetest Dark opens with a prologue written in second person, one which seems to address the reader, asking us if our eyes are open, if we have seen that “right there living beside you—are monsters of ferocious beauty [….]” It closes by telling us:

They are the drakon.

And this is the story of one of the last of them.

We then switch to the first person POV of Eleanore aka Lora, who hints of secrets she did not know until age sixteen. In 1909, ten year old Lora was found on the streets of St. Giles, mute and suffering from memory loss. She was taken to the nearest orphanage (ironically called Blisshaven) where she learned to speak again, though only the thinnest snatches of memory ever returned to her.

Like all the orphans crowding the Home, I felt certain that I did not belong where I was. That someone, somewhere, was surely searching for me, because I was special.

Unlike all the rest of the orphans, I was right.

As Lora gets older, she begins to hear sounds others don’t hear. Music from stone and especially from metal or jewels. An internal voice that tells her it will continue to haunt her until she is who she is. It also encourages her to open the window and jump, and eventually, at age fifteen, she does.

TheSweetestDark Not surprisingly, Lora ends up in a lunatic asylum for over a year. Lora spends that period faking a return to normalcy as best she can. Ultimately, she succeeds well enough to be released back to Blisshaven.

Meanwhile, World War I has broken out, and the orphanage has been bombed. The government has recommended evacuating the children to the countryside. Upon Lora’s return, a place is found for her as a charity pupil at The Iverson School for Girls in Wessex.

It turns out that The Iverson School is a school for aristocratic young ladies and a remarkable opportunity for Lora to further her education. If she conducts herself well, the headmistress explains, she will be able to seek employment as a governess after graduation, something no other Blisshaven orphan could dream of.

But as Lora discovers, conducting herself well will not be simple. Because in the vicinity of Iverson, she encounters two boys – one seemingly nothing less than the spoiled and rebellious second son of a duke, the other seemingly nothing more than a simple and mute groundskeeper – and both aren’t what outward appearances might lead everyone else to believe.

In Armand and Jesse’s presence, the music and the internal voice Lora has tried to shut out are magnified and become undeniable. Also undeniable are the differences between Lora and most human beings.

Who is Eleanore/Lora? Where did she come from? Where do the new abilities she discovers at Iverson come from? How do Armand and Jesse fit in? And will Lora’s unusual perceptions lead her to discover her true mettle or to her ultimate destruction?

As usual for me, I found your prose style lovely, elegant and vivid. I also really liked Eleanor/Lora who, like most of your heroines, is strong and not necessarily sweet. Despite all she has to endure at the lunatic asylum, Lora remains tough. She doesn’t let anyone run over her, abuse her or take advantage of her, and anyone who tries gets payback.

When Lora arrived at Iverson, I had some believability issues with the threats she issued to her fellow students, aristocratic young ladies who could surely get her kicked out or at the very least, into serious trouble.

As a reader of the Drakon series books, I knew that Lora was behaving according to the rules of her species, but since she was not raised within that species, and was instead brought up as a foundling whose position on the totem pole of the English class structure was low, I wasn’t sure how to reconcile her upbringing with her behavior.

This clash of two social structures could have been fascinating had it been explored, but since it wasn’t, it left me with raised eyebrows, in addition to a liking for Lora.

Most of the aristocratic young women at Iverson were stereotypical snobs, but one of them proved to have more depth than that, thankfully.

As for the two boys, Armand (“Mandy”) and Jesse, I found the first more interesting than the second, but unfortunately Lora was more interested in the boring one.

When I say Jesse was boring, I mean that he was such a paragon – caring, responsible, impossibly handsome, possessing amazing powers, including powers that draw Lora to him instantaneously — that he ended up approaching Marty Stu terrain.

In any case, I could not care about him much, or about his and Lora’s feelings for each other, which were almost sweet enough to make my teeth ache.

Armand, by contrast, was more abrasive and contrary, not always a nice guy, but he proved to have a softer and more vulnerable side. In that way, as well as in other ways, he and Lora were alike. I wasn’t always sure what kind of couple they might make, but I liked him enough to feel invested in him as a person.

[spoiler]By the end of the book, one of Lora’s potential suitors is no longer in the picture of Lora’s future. I was okay with this, personally. I’m not that keen on love triangles and I’m hopeful that the next book in this series, The Deepest Night, will take a different direction.[/spoiler] As stated before, my knowledge of the earlier Drakon series books interfered with my ability to enjoy The Sweetest Dark as much as I suspect a reader unfamiliar with the drakon might. Here are the reasons why:

First, a lot of this book hinges on the mystery of Lora’s unusualness. Who is she? What is she? These are the questions that drive the book.

As a reader of the Drakon series, I knew the answers to these questions. It took a good portion of The Sweetest Dark for them to be answered, and throughout this section, I felt impatient. Had all the clues been new to me, I would likely have been drawn into the mystery instead of tapping my foot and feeling a strong temptation to skim ahead.

Second, there is Jesse. His background and powers turn out to be something new. Perhaps this should have satisfied me, but it seemed like the Drakon mythology was being revised in order to accommodate his character. Readers new to this mythology will not notice or mind, but as a longtime reader, I was frustrated by what seemed like a late change.

There was a third negative effect from having read the earlier books which I will have to hide/bury because it involves a spoiler for The Sweetest Dark. Readers, click on it at your own risk:

[spoiler]Late in the book, it is revealed that the drakon species is almost extinct. This means that not only are the heroes and heroines of the earlier books are dead, but so are most of their descendants.

For the most part, I think I could have been okay with the melancholy this made me feel, because after all, most of the drakon books were set over a century earlier than The Sweetest Dark.

But there are also strong hints that Honor and Alexandru, the protagonists of The Time Weaver, are not only now dead, but had at best a decade or so of happiness before they were hunted down and killed.

I hope later books prove me wrong about this, but I fear they will not. Killing Alexandru and Honor off like that breaks an unwritten contract for me, as I think it would for many readers of romance. It’s a downer to say the least.[/spoiler]

The Sweetest Dark was one of the first books I read after a reading slump and it helped get me out of that slump. That’s a big point in its favor. I appreciated that it had a mix of POVs — in addition to Lora’s first person POV, we get the two boys’ POVs in 3rd person, as well as letters written many decades earlier by a mysterious (or perhaps not so mysterious) woman named Rue.

There as some exciting action scenes in the book, and exciting reveal scenes as well. These sucked me in. There are haunting moments, too. I especially liked the scenes in which Lora visited the ducal mansion of Tranquility which, under its polished surface, was anything but tranquil.

Though I would have appreciated more historical detail about the war, the setting of the school and the beach and grotto that surrounded it enhanced the reading experience with their atmosphere. I suspect that had this book served as my introduction to the world of the drakon, it would have rated around a B- for me.

In the end, though, I’m a reader who loved most of the books in the earlier series and knows the drakon mythology well, and I have to grade from my own experience and perspective. For that reason, I give it a C.

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Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character-driven books. Examples include novels by Shana Abe, Loretta Chase, Patricia Gaffney, Cecilia Grant, Judith Ivory, Carolyn Jewel, Laura Kinsale, Julie Anne Long, Alison Richardson, Nalini Singh and Pam Rosenthal. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, "Kiss of Life", appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com. or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.

19 Comments

  1. CG
    Apr 26, 2013 @ 09:40:16

    Nooooo! A YA written in first person containing a love triangle, it’s like the holy trinity of book kryptonite for me, but it’s written by one of my very few auto-buy authors. What to do, what to do. *bites nails in indecision

    ETA: Ok, read the second spoiler and that pretty much settles it. Pass. And now I’m kind mad at Shana Abe.

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  2. Janine
    Apr 26, 2013 @ 10:06:44

    @CG: FWIW, it’s not written entirely in first person, there are third person sections in the boys’ POVs as well. And the love triangle isn’t that much of a triangle as some, in that Lora is a lot more interested in Jesse than in Armand.

    Re. the spoiler, I was pretty upset as well. I could have the second part of it wrong — it’s hinted but not stated outright. But yeah, I was not a happy camper when I reached that conclusion.

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  3. hapax
    Apr 26, 2013 @ 11:13:18

    Well, bummer. Especially since the conclusion of TIME WEAVER so strongly hinted at another resolution.

    (Not that I was particularly invested in that couple — that title pretty much made *me* want to hunt down and exterminate all drakon. But I digress…)

    I had my fingers crossed that this series would see a more hopeful turnaround for the world.

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  4. AJH
    Apr 26, 2013 @ 12:04:15

    I get so excited when I can comment on reviews (to be fair, you are probably way less excited). But I just wanted to say, slightly irrelevantly, that I’ve reading The Smoke Thief at the moment and it’s *amazing*. So beautifully written. So far, the actual metaplot, or whatever is meant to be going on with the Drakon, is completely confusing to me but I can’t tell whether that’s because I keep swooning at all the pretty. So it’s possible I’d be less dubious about this one than you were, because I already don’t have any clue what’s going on :)

    Again, without any particular basis for this, but the love triangle thing – the nice guy and the arsehole guy – seems … I don’t know … is it a YA Law or something?

    By contrast, The Smoke Thief is sort of defying my expectations at every turn.

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  5. Janine
    Apr 26, 2013 @ 12:06:50

    @hapax: I liked The Time Weaver a lot better than you did, Hapax. I thought it was probably the strongest Drakon book since The Dream Thief, and certainly an improvement on The Treasure Keeper. The Sweetest Dark has a different feel than the other drakon books, though.

    Re. the spoiler. I think it’s one of those things that works great for a YA series but not for a romance series, so this is one case where the change in genre within the same series has given short shrift to romance readers’ experience of reading these books.

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  6. Janine
    Apr 26, 2013 @ 12:21:34

    @AJH: So glad you are enjoying The Smoke Thief. That one is probably my favorite in the series, and yes, it was very fresh and good.

    I don’t know what it is with YA and triangles, but I’ll be glad when that trend dies.

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  7. Readsalot81
    Apr 26, 2013 @ 13:09:24

    I have this on my TBR pile .. and I have cracked it open just a tad, read the first couple of chapters to see if I’d be interested in reading on, and I am. I like the way she writes. Since I haven’t read Smoke Thief or her other books, I may not have the problems that you did.

    Janine – Marty Stu – LOL!!!! May I borrow that? :)

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  8. Janine
    Apr 26, 2013 @ 13:14:14

    @Readsalot81: Yeah, I think with not having read her earlier books, you’ll likely have a better experience with this one.

    Janine – Marty Stu – LOL!!!! May I borrow that? :)

    I didn’t come up with it. It gets used in the SF community, and can be found in the Wikipedia entry on Mary Sue, I think. So yes, feel welcome to use it anytime.

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  9. bethany
    Apr 26, 2013 @ 17:52:26

    I’m disappointed and not surprised at this review. Did I wish it was different? Hell yes. The Smoke Thief is maybe one of the best books I’ve ever read, even with its issues. I was invariably disappointed at the rest of the series, though I loved Queen of Dragons, and The Time Weaver did satisfactorily resolve the issues from the series, even if I had to re-read it twice to really understand the resolution. Sometimes I think an author hits a high point that can’t be duplicated, no matter how they try, and I feel like Abe’s was the Smoke Thief. Everything that came after felt a bit muted and fuzzy, kind of like she was making multiple photocopies of an original.

    When I saw that her new series was YA and that it was hardcover, I hesitated, waiting for a review, and now I feel somewhat vindicated that I didn’t buy it. I’m kind of inconsolable at the second spoiler, and wouldn’t even read it for free now. I prefer the resolution of the series we’ve already read.

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  10. Janine
    Apr 26, 2013 @ 18:00:32

    @bethany: Yeah, I agree that The Smoke Thief was Abe’s high point (thus far anyway), though I have a couple of friends who love The Dream Thief above all others. Still, I was very fond of the Drakon series, and with one exception (The Treasure Keeper) I graded all the books B+ or higher.

    I’m kind of inconsolable at the second spoiler, and wouldn’t even read it for free now.

    I has a sad too.

    Is it the first or second part of that spoiler that has you feeling this way? I ask because what I detail in the first paragraph of that spoiler seems pretty strongly stated, but the stuff in the last two paragraphs are is only hinted at and I may be reaching the wrong conclusion.

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  11. John
    Apr 26, 2013 @ 22:27:50

    This was my first book from Abe, and I’m not sure I want to read the second in the YA series. Her writing was phenomenal, but I thought that there was a lot of prose for very little plot; her romance was insta-love, the reveal of the drakon aspects felt belated. There were just too many YA tropes for me to think of it as anything other than okay. Abe didn’t do anything super badly, but as a secular work I could not find myself enthused about this as something original.

    It makes me wonder if I would like her book The Smoke Thief. It sounds like readers vastly prefer it, and I think I would like her writing better in her adult books. This one felt like it was writing down to the audience on a plot level.

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  12. Janine
    Apr 26, 2013 @ 22:54:08

    @John: Yeah, I agree with you. The plotting was not that strong and didn’t do much new or fresh with familiar tropes. Armand’s reactions to Lora made sense given the rules established in the earlier books but the Jesse/Lora instalove thing was based on brand new aspects of the mythology that weren’t consistent with the previous drakon books. Maybe if it had led to an interesting place, I would have been more forgiving of that, but it didn’t.

    From my POV, The Smoke Thief is a far stronger book IMO; I reviewed it here and gave it an A-.

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  13. Jennie
    Apr 27, 2013 @ 00:30:43

    Thanks for the review, Janine. I really liked the Drakon series by and large, but if memory serves as it went on I felt like it lost some focus. There were so many kind of mysterious hints in the earlier books that never paid off for me, or at least I don’t remember any clear resolutions (it’s been a while since I read the books).

    I’m intrigued by the new book, but put off by the negatives you mention (honestly, probably the sickly sweet romance a bit more even than the spoiler stuff).

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  14. Rei
    Apr 27, 2013 @ 02:18:31

    You know, I don’t think I’d have such a problem with the love triangles in YA romances if they were actually any sort of love triangle. I mean, if there were genuine conflict and doubt about who the heroine was going to end up with, that would be one thing, but most of the time it’s just “she loves this one! But the air sizzles with this one! But the air *also* sizzles with the one she loves, *and* she loves them, so really it’s pretty damned obvious who’s coming off the winner here!” and it comes off manufactured and contrived.

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  15. Janine
    Apr 27, 2013 @ 14:27:39

    @Jennie: I don’t recall mysterious hints early in the series that went unexplained, but I may be forgetting something. The last book, The Time Weaver did have a tricky plot and clues to things that took some rereading to figure out.

    I wouldn’t describe the romance in The Sweetest Dark as “sickly sweet” (I’ve read much worse) but it was too sweet for my tastes. There was a twist at the end of the book that made me feel the second book in the series would not have this kind of sweetness.

    @Rei: Well said. The fake triangles a la Twilight can be irritating. I will say that the unexpected twist at the end of The Sweetest Dark does make me feel The Deepest Night (book two) will be stronger in this regard. Hope I’m right since I’ll probably read it.

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  16. Mary
    Apr 27, 2013 @ 14:45:24

    I couldn’t read TIME WEAVER-I skimmed it, reading parts that looked more interesting than others. I understand the plot, and I did read the ending (I am one of those horrible people that frequently reads the ending first because I hate surprises!), and I have to say that although I was not SUPER invested in that book, your spoiler still makes me sad. My problem with that book wasn’t the characters, but rather Honor’s power…time travel makes me crazy and I really can’t read it, I get to caught up in how illogical it all is!
    I actually preferred Treasure Keeper, although I did have problems with it. Smoke Thief/Dream Thief are my favorites, and I also like Queen of Dragons, although I had issues with the hero in that.
    This one sounds like I’ll be passing up on it…I cannot do love triangles! I have read too many, especially in long series. Even though it sounds like this one gets resolved, it sounds like it has more of the problems than the joys of the Drakon series.

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  17. Keishon
    Apr 28, 2013 @ 17:45:29

    I read the spoilers. All I can is how disappointing and may be short sighted? I was another reader who enjoyed The Smoke Thief and I think that’s all I read in the series. I won’t be following Ms. Abe into YA although the thought of her writing does tempt me. Thanks Janine.

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  18. Janine
    Apr 29, 2013 @ 16:41:02

    @Mary: I hear you on the love triangles. To say that they are not a new thing in YA is an understatement.

    @Keishon: Disappointing and possibly short sighted is a good way of putting it. I remember how you enjoyed The Smoke Thief. That was such a fabulous book. Sigh.

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  19. msaggie
    May 05, 2013 @ 17:24:37

    Thanks so much for the excellent review on The Sweetest Dark. Because it is beautifully written, one doesn’t quite notice the lack of plot until one ruminates on it after completing the book. I actually did enjoy it, but agree with all your points. It’s probably a B read for me. I thought what Jesse was, and could do, was a new reveal that did not necessarily jar with the drakon mythology. I also agree with you that I prefer Armand to Jesse.

    SPOILER WARNING_I didn’t read the second spoiler before reading the book (the first spoiler was enough for me!) – and I didn’t quite dot all the i’s to come to that conclusion until your prompt. Lora and Armand must be some sort of cousins, a few times removed if Armand’s mother is Rue and Kit’s great-great grandchild from her youngest child born in a land where dragons are revered (presumably China), and we suspect that Lora is Honor’s child born after all that time-travel. I would like to see a plot development where another group that supports the drakon (e.g. in a land where they are revered) do battle against those who want to exterminate them in Europe!

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