REVIEW: Darkborn by Alison Sinclair
Dear Ms. Sinclair.
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