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REVIEW: Darkborn by Alison Sinclair

Dear Ms. Sinclair.

book review I first heard of your novel when someone posted the cover on their blog.   And speaking for myself, I can safely say the cover did its job.   It caught my interest, stuck the title and your name in mind, and when I got the chance to review it, I was positively gleeful.

Centuries ago, a mage named Imogene cursed the inhabitants of Minhorne.   As a result, society was split in half, resulting in the Darkborn and the Lightborn.   The Darkborn cannot go into light or they will burn to ash.   The Lightborn cannot go into darkness or they will find their life force draining away.

Other differences separate them.   For example, the Darkborn was born blind.   After all, what good is sight if you live in a world of darkness?   Instead they have another sense called sonn, similar to how sonar works for bats.   And unlike the Lightborn, the Darkborn revile magic and practitioners find themselves on society’s fringes or cast out entirely.   So while they co-exist in the same city, their societies have evolved in completely different ways, transforming the city depending on the time of day.

It’s against this backdrop that we are introduced to Balthasar, a Darkborn physician, who finds his older brother’s former lover on his doorstep.   It turns out she’s pregnant and about to give birth.   The problem?   She’s engaged to a very powerful (and power hungry) lord and the father isn’t him.   To complicate matters further, she insists that the father came to her during daylight hours, which would suggest that her lover is actually a Lightborn.   And when she gives birth to twin boys who can see, Balthasar is forced to admit the possibility is very real.

The birth of the boys catapults Balthasar into a web of intrigue and conspiracy.   And drawn with him are his daughters and his wife, Telmaine, who comes from a Darkborn family higher in social status than his.   But for all her noble blood, Telmaine hides a secret.   She is in fact a mage of outstanding power.   But knowing how much Darkborn society frowns upon such abilities, Telmaine has instead chosen to hide the truth behind a mask of feigned hypochondria and long gloves that prevent the skin to skin contact that activates her power.   What they discover is much worse than an experiment involving Darkborn and Lightborn interbreeding. Instead an ancestral enemy has changed tactics and targeted both their societies on a different battlefield.

This is the first of a trilogy, and I think it’s useful to keep this in mind while reading it because so much of the larger plotline is merely set up here and not resolved.   Darkborn does stand well on its own; there are no cliffhangers at the end.   But if there are readers like me and find themselves more intrigued with the larger conspiracy, I think it’s helpful to know that there are more books forthcoming and we’ll (hopefully) learn about the roles of the twins and how this new assault will change — and it has to, if they want to have any chance of surviving — the fabric of Minhorne and its dual societies.

At its heart, Darkborn is a book about dualities, contrasts, and opposites.   Telmaine is a proper society lady who’s kind of pitied because she married beneath her rank.   But for a woman who can read a person’s heart with a mere touch, it was very important for her to marry a good man, and Balthasar is exactly that.

However, this new threat jeopardizes her fragile position in many ways.   First off, now she must balance her identity as a proper Darkborn lady with that of a mage of incredible power.   This is something she must especially come to grips with because as a proper Darkborn, she was taught to disdain anything to do with magic.   Even though she knew her true nature from a young age, she was able to suppress it.   Now she can’t.

This brings us to the other complication.   She finds herself attracted to Baron Ishmael Strumheller, a Darkborn lord who made a name for himself on the border as a mage and hunter of the Shadowborn, monsters that were born out of the war that ended with Imogene’s curse.   So yes, this book does feature a love triangle of sorts.   I admit, however, that it didn’t work for me.   I never quite believed that Telmaine was genuinely attracted to Ishmael.   For me, it was more of a sympathetic relief that here was another Darkborn noble who was a mage and wouldn’t judge her or ostracize her from society.   Although how in the world someone who already hovers at the edge of proper society could ostracize someone like Telmaine is beyond me.   I also find myself very fond of the relationship between Telmaine and Balthasar and the thought of her casting that — and their daughters aside — for someone she’s known for less than a week somewhat distasteful.

On the other hand, to make me a complete hypocrite, I was utterly fascinated by the relationship between Balthasar and his neighbor, Floria White Hand, a Lightborn assassin who serves the Lightborn royal court.   Apparently, their families have lived in adjacent townhouses for generations and as a symbol of their mutual trust, a mere paper wall reinforced with steel mesh separates them.   They even pass messages and objects to one another via a cabinet.   This isn’t to say I want their relationship to be romantic, even though there are hints of that in Floria’s words and actions and Balthasar’s recollections of their growing up together (so to speak, given their respective society’s limitations for interacting in each other’s worlds).   But I found the particular facet interesting and wanted to know how in the world their families came to live side by side in the first place and why in the world would they risk such a flimsy separation.

As the opening for an intrigue-filled fantasy, I think this book works very well.   As a romantic fantasy, I’m not entirely sold.   The love triangle between Balthasar, Telmaine, and Ishmael fell flat for me because I was so uninterested in the romantic aspects of Telmaine and Ishmael’s relationship, it held little interest for me.   Now, if it had been Balthasar, Telmaine, and Floria, that would have been a different story.   That said, I’m looking forward to the next book and hope to see more of Floria — who was by far my favorite character, for all that she rarely appeared on page (understandable given the limitations of her being from the opposite society) –   and her fellow Lightborn.   B

My regards,
Jia

This book can be purchased in mass market from an independent bookstore or ebook format from the Sony Store and other etailers.

Jia is an avid reader who loves fantasy and young adult novels. She's also currently dipping her toes in the new adult genre but remains unconvinced by the prevalent need for traumatic pasts. Her favorite authors are Michelle West and Jacqueline Carey. YA authors whose works she's enjoyed include Holly Black, Laini Taylor, Ally Carter, and Megan Miranda. Jia's on a neverending quest for novels with diverse casts and multicultural settings. Feel free to email her with recommendations at [email protected]!

21 Comments

  1. C.M. Daniels
    May 14, 2009 @ 12:07:49

    This sounds pretty good. I’ll put this on my very long “want to read” pile.

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  2. vanessa jaye
    May 14, 2009 @ 12:28:07

    This sounds pretty good. I'll put this on my very long “want to read” pile.

    Ditto.

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  3. carolyn crane (CJ)
    May 14, 2009 @ 12:45:55

    Whew! This sounds really great. What a cool setup. And I, too, love the title and the cover, too. She reminds me of Drusilla from Buffy/Angel, never a bad thing. And I’m sure she’s much nicer and saner.

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  4. Janine
    May 14, 2009 @ 12:55:21

    The cover is lovely. I’m very tempted…

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  5. Maya M.
    May 14, 2009 @ 13:11:58

    I flat out adored this book, and couldn’t read it fast enough. Not since Book 1 of Sarah Monette’s ‘Labyrinth’ series have I been so impressed with the beginning of a fantasy series. I agree that the most interesting relationship of many is the deep friendship between Balthazar and Floria, who are not only opposite in nature (Darkborn/Lightborn) but occupation (physician/assassin). I felt the relationship between spouses Balthazar and Telmaine was very tender, yet also (in contrast to Jia) believed her attraction to Lord Ishmael. To me, it was as if that relationship were a step beyond her relationship to Balthazar – if high society disapproved of her marriage, how much more scandalized would others be to know of her attraction to the infamous Shadowhunter. And it wasn’t a matter of ‘seeing’ the way one often can which man would be a better match for the heroine – they were both, IMHO,equally attractive, Ishmael in an alphai-ish, smart, man-of-action kind of way, Balthazar in a beta, intellectual, but no less courageous kind of way. I’m dying of curiosity to see how this is resolved, and whether the Balthazar/Floria relationship deepens.

    I really hoped this book would get a lot of buzz, and am happy to see the review here.

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  6. Jia
    May 14, 2009 @ 13:12:56

    @carolyn crane (CJ): She’s definitely saner and nicer although perhaps not quite as interesting.

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  7. Janine
    May 14, 2009 @ 13:53:48

    @Jia: Say it ain’t so! I always thought Drucilla was the most annoying and boring character on Buffy!

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  8. Kalen Hughes
    May 14, 2009 @ 14:21:30

    Ok, I’m sold . . . and that’s saying something (cause I don’t really *do* paranormal books). This one just sounds so freaken original that I can’t resist it.

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  9. Jia
    May 14, 2009 @ 14:41:01

    @Janine: It depends on your preferences. I liked Drusilla and Telmaine bored me a bit. On the other hand, if you didn’t like Drusilla, then Telmaine might be right up your alley.

    Of course, this isn’t really a good comparison since the two characters are nothing alike. (Aside from physical resemblances courtesy of a book cover, that is.)

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  10. Janine
    May 14, 2009 @ 14:58:31

    See, I just thought Dru was obnoxious enough to give me a headache. I was so glad when she left the show. Then again the whole first two seasons of Buffy didn’t do much for me. It got much better after Drusilla left, and even better when Angel was gone, too.

    To bring this back to topic, Darkborn sounds like it could be really good. I’m off to look for an excerpt.

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  11. Chrissy
    May 14, 2009 @ 16:30:56

    I am sitting in Borders on my netbook and will be getting up to go buy this book as soon as I hit SUBMIT COMMENT.

    Sounds right up my alley… like a sexier Sister Light/Sister Dark. (Jane Yolen, anyone??)

    And I have to agree that the cover is dynamite.

    DROOOOOOOOOOOL

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  12. Chrissy
    May 14, 2009 @ 16:36:21

    Update: got the last one on the shelf. YAY

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  13. Nicole
    May 14, 2009 @ 21:33:24

    I recently read this and just adored it. Breezed right through it and can’t wait to read the sequel whenever it comes out.

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  14. Evangeline
    May 14, 2009 @ 21:33:46

    This sounds really good!

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  15. Chrissy
    May 15, 2009 @ 12:35:31

    The sequel, Lightborn, is due out next May. Long wait. :(

    It has a Melanie Rawn meets Anne Bishop feel to it for me. Not as sexy as Bishop; not as rich or bright as Rawn. Equally enjoyable as both, though.

    And Sharon Shinn endorses it… she’s made of the coolio.

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  16. Jia
    May 15, 2009 @ 12:40:57

    @Chrissy: Yeah, it follows the traditional fantasy publishing schedule — one book published every year. Melanie Rawn meets Anne Bishop is a good description for it, actually. And I agree with your comparisons: it’s a bit shallower in execution than Rawn and lacks the dark sensuality of Bishop. It works well for what it is though.

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  17. Erum
    May 15, 2009 @ 13:29:53

    OK, maybe this is a stupid question, but how do the Darkborn folks know that the twins can see? If they’re all blind?

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  18. Jia
    May 15, 2009 @ 13:35:02

    @Erum: The Darkborn have sonn (sonar) so they can visualize people too, if not in the same way sighted people can. Balthasar noticed the twins were acting strange, where acting strange means they were reacting to external stimuli. He tested this was by passing his hands over their faces and they followed the movement, which a blind person would not do.

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  19. votermom
    May 21, 2009 @ 07:30:33

    I really liked this! Intriguing concept, which I mentioned to my 12yo, who is wild about fantasy. She asked if she could read it. I think I will let her — there’s nothing very graphic that I recall. I warned her that there is lots of killing.

    @Erum, I had the same problem – if they are completely in the dark, the twins wouldn’t be able to see anything, so they couldn’t follow anything with their eyes.
    But later there is a fire (or two) and the Darkborn aren’t affected by the light from the fire, so I have decided (in my mind) that they are only affected by UV light (as in sunlight). So maybe there was a fire, or some glowing embers, in the room where the babies were. This still leaves the problem of Floria’s light (was it a flashlight?) which I refuse to think about. :)

    I can believe Telmaine’s attraction to “bad boy” Ish, but she would never leave Bal or her family, imo. But the temptation is for intimacy with a fellow touch-reader that she can never have with Bal.

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  20. Sandy D.
    May 26, 2009 @ 14:31:30

    Just coming back to say I got this book, based on the review, and enjoyed it a great deal. So thank you, Jia!

    Unlike some of you, I didn’t like the cover much – and I didn’t think it reflected the story itself (was that supposed to be Telmaine? must be, because of the gloves, but she’s not at all like I pictured her). But I really did think the world building was excellent, the characters complicated and interesting, with lots of different kinds of relationships, and the mystery pretty good.

    Not so much a romance (you were very on target there!), but that’s ok, sometimes. :-)

    I am dismayed by the year long wait for “Lightborn” now.

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  21. Carin
    Jul 06, 2009 @ 20:43:36

    I reserved this book at the library when I read the review (must have been back in May) and just got it now. I was totally sucked in, and hated having to put it down and return to my real life. The world building and storytelling were great! I liked how things unfolded without big info-dumps.

    I thought it was a very believable love triange (quadralateral? if you include Floria…) You can see that Bal and Telmaine have a deep love for one another. And Floria and Ish muddy those waters, with no malicious intent… it’s just complicated. How they work through that, and obviously that’s a storyline that will continue in future books, is very interesting.

    I didn’t find Telmaine boring at all. I thought her journey was the meat of the story. For the most part, she *really* enjoys filling the role women play in the Darkborn society. When she is pushed to have to use her magic, it starts something rolling that can’t be undone. She really wishes it could be, though. It’s sort of a coming of age story. She has to grow out of the mold her society put her in – one that she doesn’t mind – in order to fulfil a bigger purpose.

    This was a good read!

    ReplyReply

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