This review has been delayed, because I earnestly anguished over its writing. Much prayer and council has gone into this review, and I regret to say it may not be the glowing review that might be expected. I really wanted to like this book, it being my first review for Marcher Lord Press. I had high expectations based on the plethora of amazing reviews, and I was disappointed that this book didn’t deliver on all the promises. Through humility and generosity (and at the risk of both Jill Williamson and Jeff Gerke unfriending me on Facebook) I will do my best to give what I feel is a very difficult review.
First, let me tell you a little about the book. By Darkness Hid is written by Jill Williamson and published by Marcher Lord Press under the helm of Jeff Gerke. It is a story of hidden identities, hidden agendas, and hidden destinies. We follow the tale of two teens, thrust into horrible circumstances and who just can’t seem to get a break. It is also a 2010 Christy Award nominee and an MLP Best-selling title.
On the one hand we have young Achen. He is a stray, an orphan forced to live life lower than a peasant because he has no family, yet gets the opportunity to train as a squire. On the other hand we have Vrell, a Lady of nobility forced into a hidden life as a stray boy to escape from an arranged marriage to the horrible heir to the throne of Er’Rets. Little by little, their tales intertwine until they come to finish this installment together.
The setting is rich and believable. It is expertly described by an author who cares about making the setting as perfect as possible. All the stylistic nuances of a typical fantasy world are here: epic landscapes, castles, towns, and forests. Unfortunately, there is little original. Kudos to the land being divided in two with darkness on one side. It’s weird and I don’t understand it… but it’s original. But the stereotypical castles (complete with moat), old school armored knights, giants, and snooty nobility are carbon-copy fantasy. Even the “blood-voicing,” though with an original spin and name, is still just glorified telepathy. Everyone knows that dragons and elves have been talking to people with their minds for years.
The characterization of this book has obviously been anguished over. Every character is full of inner conflict and personal strife. Whereas this is a heroic effort in characterization on the part of the author, there’s a small flaw. Though the characters have traveled from point A to point B, there is no real change to the inner conflict of the main characters. Inside, they are still the exact same as when we first met them. By basic definition the main characters should be dynamic characters (that is a character that changes within the story) and they should be surrounded with supporting static characters (characters who do not change) with which to measure the change within the main characters. The fact that our highly conflicted main characters do not exhibit change, makes them static characters. They begin to feel like supporting characters, and trying to force them into lead roles is slippery and elusive, leaving the story with no center of characterization. In many places, the story seems to want to center around much more interesting supporting characters, such as Sir Gavin… more about him in a minute.
When assessing the plot, it boils down to this: By Darkness Hid is entirely character driven. If that’s your cup of tea… fine. But I feel like a book should be more. There is no discernable plot in By Darkness Hid. Instead there are circumstances that the characters react to and that intertwine with each other, creating a great adventure with no destination. I found myself asking as I rounded page 300, “So what?” So what that Achen is being trained as a squire? So what that Vrell is being taken as an apprentice? For Achen the question gets answered… in the last chapter. For Vrell, the question is never fully answered. And as we close this book and head into the sequel, finally the elusive plot has emerged in time to put the book back on the shelf.
Don’t get me wrong. I understand the reason it’s done like this. The ending wouldn’t have been nearly as good had the reader had this information. But it’s the lack of direction that bothers me. Perhaps a prologue would have helped, showing us Lord Nathak rescuing the orphaned baby after the King and Queen were murdered, and giving us a little insight about his decisions in that situation. I don’t have the answer. But a reader needs a sense of destination, and By Darkness Hid hides the destination from the reader. Personally, I would have liked to seen a third POV from Sir Gavin, showing us connections between Vrell and Achen and dropping the reader clandestined hints about where the story was going. Not only would it provide direction for the plot, but it would allow the reader to spend some time with one of the most intriguing characters of the book.
Then again, I have this same plot related complaint of the master of modern fantasy, the late Robert Jordan. So maybe I’m just crazy.
If you’ve read any of my blogs on writing characterization, you’ve seen that I put a lot of emphasis on the Journey of a main character. Characters should be strong, but characters should also have a journey and the reader a destination. As I compare my Journeys to By Darkness Hid, I see that there is no character at all that fills the Villain’s Quest. Also, neither of the main characters, Achen and Vrell, come close to completing the Hero’s Journey. I have no doubt that within the Blood of Kings series, for which By Darkness Hid is but the first installment, that these roles will be filled. Yet I feel somewhat empty not having seen a conclusion to this part of their journey, showing me that this one has ended and another one is about to begin.
The story seems to just end without providing resolution to the reader. Maybe that was the intention, but I feel like the reader needs a little something. After all, the reader has been teased and taunted, but never given any satisfaction, and after investing in 400 pages the reader deserves some. What did I expect? A reunion… a confession… an acceptance. (If you’ve read it, you know what I’m referring to.) These simple things would have closed the book, given resolution to this installment, and satisfied the reader.
So in summary, this book has obviously been anguished and loved over by the author… perhaps too much so. The setting is mostly unoriginal. The main characters are static and therefore slippery in the lead roles. The plot is hidden from the reader. There are no obviously defined villains or heroes. And the book ends without resolution.
Now for some good news!
Williamson really is an excellent writer. The scene setups are impeccable, and transitions between scenes are flawless. Everything flows as one unit and the rhetoric is highly descriptive and void of too many clichés. It’s an easy read, in keeping with its YA designation, and the conflicts are not so complex that they can’t be easily followed.
The Christian elements in By Darkness Hid are a breath of fresh air in the pagan dominant genre of fantasy. Why is it that main-stream fantasy writers almost exclusively build a polytheist religious world? By Darkness Hid acknowledges this kind of world, while presenting a niche group of people who follow the one true God, Arman. The Christian themes are subtle, but are important to the characters that present them. The portrayal of this small group of “Christians” is pleasantly reminiscent of the early church, even calling them followers of the “Way,” a term popular with first century Christians. The believers shown in this book are gracious, kind, and devout. In fact, they demonstrate all the fruits of the spirit, without giving condemnation to non-believers. This is a wonderful observation on what it means to be a true Christian, because so often believers are portrayed as “holier-than-thou”.
My recommendations to the curious reader who is interested in this book differs depending on what you’re looking for.
If you’re looking for fantasy, I cannot give my recommendation. There are too many great fantasy writers already established such as Robert Jordan, Terry Brooks, and, my personal favorite, Robin McKinley. The Hero and the Crown, by McKinley is perhaps the greatest stand-alone fantasy novel ever written. Williamson has a long way to go before being able to compete with these heavyweights.
If you’re looking for YA, I’m a little on the fence. There’s great main-stream YA out there and even some great Christian YA. This book is nothing special in comparison, but it is by no means the least of these. It is much better than the horrible Here, There Be Dragons and the overtly anti-Christian book The Alchemyst: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flemel. It even excels in many ways above Inkheart, to which a movie has been made. These authors definitely would not appreciate a review by me. Hmm… thinking on this, perhaps I’ve been a little too hard on By Darkness Hid.
If you’re looking for Christian literature, you won’t find another author more devoted to presenting Christian themes with integrity and passion. When it comes to good Christian writers committed to writing about the Christian faith in a very real way, perhaps only Frank Peretti is greater.
Where this book best fits is if you’re looking for a combination of the above: Christian fantasy, YA fantasy, or Christian YA. In all of these areas By Darkness Hid excels.
By Darkness Hid cannot stand alone. I have not yet read the sequel, To Darkness Fled, but I plan to. My expectation for the sequel is that much of my criticism will be answered, and that the two books will come together as a whole to form a more complete story. I look forward to reading it and hopefully being able to bring a more positive review. I feel confident that it will be so.
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