Holly Black’s debut adult fantasy novel is a wickedly alluring tale of love, heists, and dark magic—quite literally, because in The Book of Night, shadows can be manipulated, stolen, and even become their own entities. The novel follows Charlie Hall, a retired con artist now struggling to make ends meet working as a bartender. However, she seems drawn to trouble; besides working in a bar frequented by criminals, she is also dating a man who cleans up crime scenes for a living. She tends to make enemies of the wrong people, too. Charlie is quickly pulled into a mysterious plot involving secret identities, a murderous shadow, and ancient manuscripts about shadows. The alluring premise led me to buy this book, but in the end, the endearing characters kept me turning the pages. Charlie is messed up on so many levels, but she is also incredibly endearing, as are her boyfriend Vince and her sister Poser. For me, they are the true magic of this novel. However, despite The Book of Night’s many qualities, Holly Black too often overlooks the necessity of careful exposition, making for an often confusing and does not live up to its potential.
Black is a master of atmosphere, and though her novel’s magic system left me disappointed, the darkness and mystery surrounding that magic permeate the entire novel. The prose is lush and vivid, and between depictions of dark alleys at night, a secret library, and vast mansions, it is eerie to the core, on par with other dark fantasy novels such as Bardugo’s Ninth House or Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. In The Book of Night, everyone is obsessed with shadow magic. Very little is known about it, but its mysteriousness only makes it more alluring. Some people have the ability to control and command their shadows. Others desperately try to alter their shadows to gain new abilities or simply alter their appearance and follow trends. Who wouldn’t want a shadow in the form of a cat or a demon, right?
But not everyone has the means or the capacity to modify their shadows and become part of the magical elite, which gives rise to a large network of criminals and shadow thieves. The story begins when an old acquaintance asks Charlie to track down her missing boyfriend. That same night, Charlie finds a man’s body in the street, his shadow ripped to shreds next to him. This is just as strange and confusing as it sounds when it happens in the books, but any further details would give away too much. These two seemingly unrelated events turn out to be connected to the Liber Noctum (also known as The Book of Blights), a famous manuscript rumoured to contain highly coveted knowledge on shadow magic. Charlie spends most of the novel being overwhelmed and confused by the mysteries she uncovers, and the fragmentary information about shadow magic and the significance of the Liber Noctum effectively conveys that sense to the reader. However, even as Charlie gains answers and a better understanding of shadow magic, the narrative remains puzzling. On numerous occasions, Black gives the impression that she will at last offer concrete rules and expectations for the world’s magic system. Unfortunately, the explanations are either too short or merely increase confusion. As a result, the concept of shadow magic remains elusive and indistinct like shadows themselves.
The resolution of the mystery suffers from much the same problem. While some revelations and plot twists are gripping, many of them are predictable. Even more disappointing, however, is the underwhelming climax. Charlie spends pages speculating over the connection between different people and why the Liber Noctum is important to them, only for the answer to her questions to be delivered in one or two paragraphs. The final confrontation between Charlie and the main villain of the story should have been a phenomenal resolution. Charlie’s wit and quick thinking make for an exciting narration, and there is no short amount of suspense. Once again, however, Black leads us through the scene too quickly, and the answers feel too easy.
Where The Book of Night truly captivates and exceeds expectations is in the depiction of characters and relationships so real and messy that you can’t help but become attached to them. Through Charlie, Black portrays how being an adult is hard, regardless of how magical the world is. Charlie is overwhelmed with her responsibilities and her troubled past, but she never gives up. She does all she can to try and give her younger sister Posey a better life, struggling to save money to put her through college. Charlie often makes wrong decisions, but that only makes her more endearing. Charlie’s relationship with Vince is one of my favourite parts of the novel.
Very little is initially known about Vince, and the mystery of his past combined with his reclusive nature makes him suspicious. Yet, he remains a very compelling character who proves to be attentive and tender. In this novel, love often manifests itself through simple, but meaningful gestures, like Posey making food for Charlie or Vince picking her up from work, and it’s those little details that make these relationships comforting despite their dysfunctionality.
The Book of Night is a bold adult fantasy debut with an intriguing premise and compelling characters. The magic system is a bit rough around the edges, but with the major cliffhanger at the end of the novel, I’m hoping this is only the beginning of this universe and that further installments will allow Black to shadow magic in greater depth.