Holly Black, best known for the ‘Folk of the Air’ trilogy but a prolific author of YA fantasy, makes her adult fantasy debut with ‘Book of Night’ – an urban fantasy about con artists, power, and messy characters living messier lives. In much the vein of ‘Ninth House‘ – another adult debut by a popular YA author – it’s a darker book, almost to emphasise that this is Definitely Not Aimed At Children. (There’s probably an entire debate to be had there about why female YA authors feel the need to do this, but I digress). In short, ‘Book of Night’ is a solid and enjoyable dark urban fantasy, but probably not a book that will appeal to many fans of Holly Black’s other work.
Charlie is a (mostly) retired con artist, working as a bartender and trying to distance herself from her previous life of crime. She’s got a steady, boring boyfriend and a steady income – if not enough of one to save up for her younger sister to go to college. However, when Charlie accidentally witnesses a murder on her way home from work, she finds herself thrown back into her old life of shadow crime – with her life potentially on the line. Never one to make a good decision when she could make a worse one, she throws herself wholeheartedly back into a world of secrets, power, and murder.
The magic system in this book is simple but effective. Everyone starts off with a shadow – but some people develop the power to alter them, using them to alter appearances, increase power, or even as weapons. Shadows can be traded and even stolen, leaving one shadowless – a lesser in society. The shadow trade is at its depths a dark and ugly thing, but to the populace at large, shadow alterations are seen as glamorous accessories. The choice of magic system adds to the darkness of the book in a quite literal way, but it’s cleverely done, and Holly Black weaves explanation into the story well, avoiding long passages of exposition.
Charlie, the protagonist, is a highly relatable Millennial-type character, the sort of person who keeps screwing up and whose life seems fated to go wrong in a hundred different ways – partially because Charlie herself can’t keep her nose out of trouble. She’s creative, curious, and kind-hearted, but also headstrong and reckless. Her relationship with her younger sister is intriguing, and one of the parts of the book I wish was explored further.
The plot is fast paced with plenty of twists and turns, with just about the right balance between foreshadowing and surprise. Most revelations can be predicted with enough mental gymnastics, but it’s satisfying having deductions proven right and there are still shocks along the way. Naturally, the book uses some genre tropes, but there’s plenty to make it feel original. The ending provides a satisfying conclusion that fits with the tone of the rest of the book, whilst leaving the door open for a potential spinoff or sequel.
For an adult fantasy this is on the shorter side, and there could have been more exploration of the world and characters, but overall this is a solid, entertaining adult debut. Recommended for fans of Ninth House and fast-paced darker fantasy.
Published by Del Rey
Hardback: 3rd May 2022