Like most veteran readers, I know to take the author endorsements on the front of a book with a sizable grain of salt. Among other things, they’re often taken slightly out of context. I had to relearn that lesson recently when I picked up a copy of Darkborn by Alison Sinclair and saw a cover quote from Carol Berg. My inner fangirl, whom I keep tied up and gagged somewhere down in the dark pits of my black, cranky reader heart was unable to resist. The cover art didn’t help matters, because it’s jawdroppingly gorgeous. Why can’t we have more of this?… So I gave in and bought Darkborn.
Darkborn plays on the theme of light and darkness and, so too will my review, because Darkborn has just as much darkness as it does light in terms of a reading experience.
The notion of the Darkborn and Lightborn is pretty fascinating. Neither one can communicate with the other without a great deal of protection, since light is lethal to the Darkborn and vice versa. Both have built up their own societies, seemingly very different from the other, and the Darkborn have even developed ‘sonn’, a sort of advanced sonar that stands in for sight quite effectively. The Lightborn are highly reliant on magic, whilst the Darkborn have taken on something of a psuedo-steampunk feel with machinery and technology. But as interesting as this is, there’s a dark side too (bear with these puns, folks, because odds are good for a lot of them).
Sinclair doesn’t even begin to develop her world to the level she could. It could have been something really different, really new and innovative, but instead it plays to themes seen plenty of times before in fantasy. To begin with, the Darkborn and Lightborn are not naturally occurring races, they’re cursed (as far as I can glean from the somewhat vague background information) as punishment for some sort of Magiclysm (i.e., people did bad stuff with magic and now future generations are paying the price 800 years later). There’s even an in-between race called the Shadowborn which is apparently made up of monsters. The potential for cliché and predictability is through the roof with this setup. This could have perhaps been smoothed a bit with further strength in the other aspects of her world, but explanations of history, society, and culture are few and far between, and quite vague. Worse, most of what you get to know is a very tiny part of only the Darkborn nobility. Little time is spent on the Lightborn, and even less is spent on the commoners of either race, giving a rather weak image of the world Sinclair is trying to create.
The plot focuses around Balthasar, his wife Telmaine, and the baron Ishmael. The most interesting character is the Lightborn Floria White Hand who, unfortunately, doesn’t get nearly enough screen time (or any at all, really, unless you count the fact that she talks to Bal through an actual screen). But I liked Bal, after a time, and Ishmael is overall a fun, easily likable character. He’s got an unfortunate name (the world’s toughest Shadowborn hunter is nicknamed — dun dun dunnn — …Ish?) and an unfortunate and largely difficult to understand love for Telmaine whom he only just met, but I enjoyed following him around. Even Telmaine comes around as a character in the end, though I confess I find her irritating, petty, and a bit stupid for most of the book, and really can’t understand why both Bal and Ish are in love with her. This makes for a somewhat hard to believe love triangle (love square if you count Telmaine’s tacked-on-feeling “Well Bal has always been in love with Floria!” complaints).
At times Alison Sinclair writes some amazingly intense, lip-chewing scenes, and she creates mystery intriguing enough that I kept reading to the end. But, great though my love for Carol Berg might be, I’m going to have to respectfully disagree with her cover quote which promises that Darkborn is “a fast-paced thriller of intrigue and politics.” “Fast-paced” and “thriller” simply don’t apply to the majority of this book in any context. If it was just slow and still interesting, I wouldn’t mind. But too often it’s instead dragged out and even repetitive. The entire second chapter (and these are long chapters) centers around a span of a couple of hours in which occurs a ball, one mysterious event, one intriguing conversation, and several extremely tedious conversations. And this is all that happens from page 31 to 72 of a trade paperback. The chapters have an unfortunate tendency towards this structure, and while exciting scenes do occur, tedious chatter is more common. And once Bal, Telmaine, and Ish are wrapped up in these events, they feel the need to explain them to all and sundry. So there are numerous conversations in which the events of the beginning of the book are repeated. If the reader is lucky it’ll be just a paragraph summing it up (though often still in more detail than is really necessary for something we’ve already read) but at times the reader must sit through the entire conversation.
While nothing special, Alison Sinclair’s prose is for the most part perfectly serviceable. There are some awkward moments (muddled, even) and she tends to overlong paragraphs, but the second isn’t bothersome except for one page-and-a-half-long paragraph that turns what should be a gripping scene into a confused muddle. But there are other little issues that you’ll think are small and nitpicky, but for me, as a reader, they ended up being huge when combined.
First, the muddled sentences sort of stack up over time, causing me to scratch my head, go back and re-read. For example:
That done, she maneuvered around the perimeter of the dance floor, murmuring greetings to the people who greeted her — whether slightly frostily or curiously, but too well-bred to question her — or in friendship.
I finally figured out what Sinclair meant, but I kept going back to it, trying to understand why no one took a red pen to this badly-punctuated sentence. This sort of thing kept drawing me out of my reading.
The term ‘sonn’ added to the muddled sentence problem and effectively demonstrates why languages have a tendency to form more than one word to describe their senses. Sonn doesn’t conjugate well to all forms, so a ‘sonning’ or a ‘sonned’ in a sentence can make it awkward at times. And since there is no other term for it than ‘sonn’, it’s all over the pages, taking the place of words like ‘look’, ‘glance’, and ‘gaze’, and it stuck out like a sore thumb at times.
Finally, and this one is going to seem really nitpicky: Sinclair insists on giving each new scene a heading which is the name of the character whose point of view it will be. Which makes perfect sense in a first person book but is really confusing in a third person book. She does it even for scene breaks where the point of view doesn’t change to a different character. It seems like such a small thing, but I found it incredibly distracting. You see, I’ve been reading quite voraciously since the age of nine. I’m very familiar with scene breaks and I understand what they signify, that the scene will change, that the point of view may or may not. I kind of regard them as you would a fade in or fade out in a movie or TV show and don’t pay them much mind, but this kept drawing my attention and I would actually dwell on it, trying to figure out why she did it. So, it might sound small to you, but it was really big for me.
Despite what it sounds like, there’s quite a bit of good in Darkborn. It’s a perfectly solid novel and I’ll check out a sequel, certainly. It’s just that, unfortunately, all too often its good points are overshadowed by its low points.
Darkborn — (2009-2011) Publisher: A new romantic fantasy of magic, manners, and espionage that is also a “fast-paced thriller” (Carol Berg). For the Darkborn, sunlight kills. For the Lightborn, darkness is fatal. Living under a centuries-old curse, the Darkborn and the Lightborn share the city of Minhorne, coexisting in an uneasy equilibrium but never interacting. When Darkborn physician Balthasar Hearne finds a pregnant fugitive on his doorstep just before sunrise, he has no choice but to take her in. Tercelle Amberley’s betrothed is a powerful Darkborn nobleman, but her illicit lover came to her through the daytime. When she gives birth to twin boys, they can see, something unheard of among the Darkborn. When men come for the boys, Balthasar is saved by the intervention of his Lightborn neighbor — and healed by the hands of his wife, Telmaine. Soon he finds himself drawn deeper into political intrigue and magical attacks, while Telmainemust confront a power she can no longer keep sheathed in gloves, a power she neither wants nor can control.
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