Darkborn is a fantasy novel that I’m not quite sure how to further classify or qualify. It’s not quite romantic fantasy, because even though it has strong themes of love, it is not a love story. It’s not sword and sorcery, because there are no swords and almost no sorcery.
It’s not epic fantasy in the way most people mean the term, because even though the consequences of failure would affect their entire race, the mission is not a sprawling adventure that covers half the known world. Dark fantasy is perhaps the closest (even aside from the lovely pun it makes on the title and the world itself), but even that term implies a moral ambiguity and intrinsic hopelessness that aren’t quite apt for this book. So, it is simply a fantasy novel, an interesting story intersecting love, loyalty, politics, and mystery in a world that is not our own.
And an artfully strange world, at that: Sinclair has taken the interplay of light and dark to an iconic new level. In this world, a centuries-old curse has split humanity into two races—possibly two species, but there is no way to test whether they can still interbreed—the Darkborn and the Lightborn. The Lightborn can live only where there is light; they will dissolve if immersed in darkness. Likewise the Darkborn can survive only in the darkness; light will burn them into ash. The Darkborn and the Lightborn share the capital city in an uncomfortable, distrustful truce, although some families have twinned houses that share a wall and thereby have a relationship with a family of the other race. The Lightborn embrace magic, while the Darkborn for the most part shun it; perhaps because of their magic, the Lightborn cannot tolerate living near the wild and threatening Shadowlands on their borders, while Darkborn borderlords and adventurers will occasionally venture inside them.
The story focuses on Darkborn physician Baltasar, who offers sanctuary to a woman just before dawn. She gives birth to twins that, she claims, were sired by a man who came to her during the day, and abandons them without a backward glance. Shortly after Baltasar sends the babes to another house, thugs break in demanding their whereabouts. He is saved by the help of the Lightborn assassin who lives on the other side of the wall, and by his wife Telmaine’s untrained magical skills when she arrives home just in time to heal him. The web of intrigue and endangerment Baltasar unwittingly snared himself and his family in begins to draw tighter about them as they discover more and more threads binding their family to this mystery…and as they begin to discover just how world-shattering the threat behind the immediate danger is.
First of all, I loved this book. Straight up loved it. I found myself thinking about halfway through, “I hope this is not a stand-alone novel”—that’s how much I was enjoying it. Luckily for me, it is the first book of a trilogy, and in my opinion an excellent opening book. Often the first book in a trilogy seems too devoted to scene-setting and doesn’t have enough action, but Darkborn covered plenty of events. Beyond the initial debacles of the twins’ birth and Baltasar’s beating, there are two specific, subsequent problems the characters have to face before the immediate storyline is brought to a close. The overarching plot is threaded subtly throughout the resolution of those obstacles, and the answers they do find to the big questions only lead to more questions about what, exactly, is going on.
The book is told from three different points of view, Baltasar, Telmaine, and her new friend, admirer, and magical teacher Ishmael. There are elements of a love triangle that may or may not be further developed. At first I was very excited to think this was a book about the love that comes after the courtship, the deep and sustaining and supporting love between two people who are partnered for life and have been for some time, because it seemed like that was what the relationship between Baltasar and Telmaine was supposed to show. And there just aren’t very many books out there that focus on that kind of relationship. I’m not sure that I like the possible love triangle, but it’s unclear whether there will be more than just that acknowledgment of having met someone else you could be happy with. The more developed forbidden attraction, in terms of what we see, is between Telmaine and Ishmael; the one that was more fascinating was between Baltasar and the Lightborn woman who lives on the other side of the wall. She seemed an interesting character, so I hope that we get to know her more in the sequel (which is titled Lightborn, a hint that we will, perhaps?).
I really liked the dichotomous world, the fact that all you could ever know was light or darkness. I also liked that there was no implication of moral superiority intrinsic to either race; light and dark are presented as societies in chiaroscuro, not good vs. evil. My one disappointment in the world-building (and it was slight) was with her descriptions of how the Darkborn view the world. As a race they are blind, but they have developed a sonar-like sense, called sonn, which they use to navigate the world safely. My issue was that she has them using sonn in place of eyes, to “look” at each other, to admire clothing and catch expressions, and this seems…unsatisfying to me. It seems like she creatively developed an alien sense but then had them using it in a human way, and therefore less interestingly than if it had been used in a more alien fashion. Why not focus instead on the senses that would be heightened in a blind world, such as touch and smell? But that criticism is minor, and didn’t detract from the story or the intrinsic interest in the world.
The characters are developed neatly within the confines of the story; Sinclair doesn’t spare many scenes that are simple exposition of who someone is. Telmaine undergoes the most radical change in the course of the story, as she is forced to choose between maintaining her identity as a dutiful, magic-eschewing Darkborn woman, or embracing what turns out to be a dangerously strong power in order to save her family. Baltasar must also come to terms with her power and the fact that its existence changes the dynamic between them, which I thought was handled realistically and also beautifully.
In all, this was one of the better fantasy books I’ve read this year. It probably isn’t for everyone—it’s much heavier on politics, social stigmas, and shifting psyches than brute force and heroism—but if the summary intrigued you, I think you should pick it up. If it’s in your normal reading zone, you will most likely enjoy it as much as I did.
Elena Nola is the imperial movie critic and the colder half of the Ladies of Ice and Fire.