Review: By Darkness Hid

(Warning: This is probably my first true “review” of a published book. Sure, I discuss them a lot, but not write this stuff down for all to see. Second, this is long.)

If books were recipes, I could happily mark the 5 star option. Just like the “Awesome Chocolate Chip Cookies” recipe, it has all the familiar ingredients:

1 young country boy with mysterious parentage

1 young girl escaping a forced marriage by masquerading as a boy

Childhood love lost

Court Intrigue conspiring to control the young heir to a vacant throne

Maimed and grisly old villains

Magical telepathy

1 Lone wolf (optional)

Mix separately then combine and bake with the heat of battle. Serve hot. Note: A dab of cool whipped sarcasm makes a refreshing garnish.

And the book delivered exactly what it looked like. Familiar and fairly predictable from cover to cover, but fun and easy to read. It seemed pretty straight forward and clear-cut. Most of the “bad guys” are shown as visually unappealing and those you are meant to like are given the more handsome visage. Sure, there were some fun little surface twists, but the main plot is standard fare. Reminds me of David Edding’s Belgariad, even to the idea of being raised by a cook. Of course, those who oversee Achan and the motives that put him there are vastly different from how Garion ended up serving in a nobleman’s kitchen in the middle of nowhere. However, like Garion, Achan regards magic and history as mere stories with no significance in his world. Garion had his own childhood sweetheart and an old man of a mentor who Garion nicknames “Mister Wolf”. I seem to recall something about a voice talking to Garion, too.

So am I suggesting copying? Nope, not really. Jill may not have even read the Belgariad. More likely it’s something of the Facebook game of “Who’s your look-alike celebrity?” As I said, these are common elements.

A country boy(or girl) with mysterious heritage is far from rare:

Rand in Eye of the World

Luke in Star Wars

Harry Potter

Heck, even Superman!

All are raised in some rural area and don’t know who they are or their true potential. And it’s not by coincidence either. People are fascinated by the idea of someone who seems to be a “nobody” or better put, an “anybody” but turns out to be more than what they seem – that “diamond in the rough”. It also tends to help show a relatively innocent/sheltered hero who is free of the corruption of more “civilized” locales.

The childhood love is a common enough experience that makes the character feel more human. It adds tension and character growth that doesn’t overwhelm, but helps build the character up to face what is coming. True love is much more realistic in round 2 anyway – or round 3. I mean, just look at the real world!

And the old wolf mentor? Well, wolves are just cool. With a connection to mystery, loner a strong fighter – how could a symbol be more perfect? Wolves figure in plenty of good stories that people love – Wheel of Time, Narnia, Harry Potter and Twilight. Even Tolkien snuck wolves into his, but a bunch of punks apparently mistook them for horses.

And who can resist the girl pretending to be a boy? Anyone remember Eowyn? Even the Belgariad has one, but she doesn’t turn up until book two. Apparently in the dark ages, a gal’s got some real spunk if she willing to dress-n-drag and wield a sword, even in China!

Jill’s in good company. And you know that saying of “Great minds think alike.”

With all the standard elements, how could it flop? Especially with Jill’s prowess with description and witty internal dialogue. It flows well, accentuated with fighting and dotted with casual humor – particularly after about halfway through when Achan seems to “come into his own”. Probably the humor highlight was Achan’s laundry list of wants when he’s rotting in the fortress dungeon. Of course, if I had just single-handedly saved the life of someone out to kill me and got thrown in jail, I would probably be spouting off sarcasm too.

On the other hand, having been raised on mysteries, I felt that the spoon-fed background of the empty throne was a bit too contrived. The biggest reason is because “everyone knows” the story, except the reader because information is obviously being withheld, lest you figure out too much. In some ways I liked Edding’s way of having it all pretty much in the open. He has a prologue that gives plenty of information so I didn’t really feel like he was trying to hide who was who, or avoiding talking about the elephant in the room. So, readers looking for a challenging mystery to solve, layered complexity or crazy twists, … well, not here.

The same goes for discerning the villains, (the oily hair slicked back and the long toenails are dead give aways) and doubts over what religion is true in Achan’s world(so do others hear the voice or just Achan?). What you see is what you get. I had neither big surprises nor grand ah-hahs. And not a moment where I seriously wanted to strangle one of the heroes. Of course, that could be more an issue of me. I’ve been described as “Easy to please, but hard to satisfy.” I enjoyed the book, enjoyed the journey and look forward to one day reading on – but it wasn’t gut-wrenching stellar, just a fun book.

I must admit that for all Jill’s attempts to show a slim, fit Prince Gidon, my default image for him was something closer to Dudley from Harry Potter. Somewhere at the edge of my awareness I got the impression that she may have intended him to be good-looking.

Only found one typo – p. 279, “Future king or not, Prince Gidon had no right take Gren.” They missed the word “to”. If anything, I’m impressed by the thoroughness of the editors. I know well how easy it is to miss little things like that. I just enjoy the challenge of noticing. Besides, it’s such a cool line to quote – direct from the mind of the hero as he determinedly sets off to protect those he loves, no matter what it takes.

I have mixed feelings about the training sequences. It is sure that Jill has done her homework, but at moments for me it felt like too much. As if she had ulterior motives to educate me whether I want it or not. Also, the sword play was one thing, but I’m not sure what people think about using real plants/herbs. I’ve felt sometimes when I have done similar that people think it lessens the “fantasy” effect. I use herbs on a regular basis. I’m familiar with nearly all the ones she mentions. Just like with the religion thing, I guess the big question is how obvious do you want to be? Jill has mixed it in, but she has a couple big chunks still.

Now, I could end my review here, but for any diehards still reading, I guess I will do a run through Keven’s Hero’s Journey regarding Achan and Vrell from my point of view. Personally, even as a first book, I thought Jill covered Keven’s stages pretty well. Sure, the fulfillments are mostly tokens because going all the way wouldn’t leave much for the rest of the series.

Warning – I will be referring to actual sequences of the book. But anyone who’s read my “Forewords – grrr…” knows how I feel about punks giving away all the best parts, so let’s see if I can keep this light and intriguing. Jill, if you read or hear about this and think I give too much away, please let me know.(That includes anything I’ve already said)

Hero’s journey

Broken home:

Achan has fulfilled this in the traditional sense – with about as low as you can go. Orphaned, less than a slave and just about every punk in the story gets to have at least a swing at him. Some get to beat him on a more regular basis – in the first half anyway.
Although Vrell has a wonderful, caring mother, with Nathak’s thugs hanging around, “home” is not exactly a friendly place at the moment. Plus she doesn’t have a father to protect them. Then as a boy, she pretends to be a stray also. So she too gets to be on the bottom of the totem pole.

Reluctant Quest:

Can’t imagine how these two poor souls could have been more reluctant…

Journey? Okay, that one’s not even funny. Trust me, they burn plenty of miles.

Companions: Well, I doubt this one is disputed.

First Blood:

I see this more as an issue of “reality check” or first disillusionment, but I felt there were plenty of options. These were my picks though.

Archan’s hunting expedition
Vrell’s dripstone battle(which I very much enjoyed…the outcome anyway)

Death of mentor:

To me this is the sink or swim moment, whether or not anyone dies.

For Achan it’s pretty clear to be where Gavin is banished – both teacher and lone friend with any influence.
Vrell is a bit more subtle, but even she had mentors ripped away and forced to go it alone. From Mitt, the herbalist to Jax. Both taught her, watched over her then were gone. Broader still you could say her mother – as her teacher for bloodvoice and parental figure (which the mentor usually fills when the person comes from the cliché dysfunctional home mentioned above). Contact with her is lost, and Vrell in turn must teach Achan some basics.

Belly of the Whale:

Achan – Some might say the dungeon, but I say trying to save the stupid prince.
Vrell – When she’s discovered and drugged.

Hand of God:

Achan – When the prince leaves him for dead
Vrell – Drugged, bound and ready to be shipped back to her seriously-not-beloved suitor
(You don’t really think I’d give away how they are saved, do you? You wanna know, go read the book.)


Life changing, eh?
Achan – How about surrendering his beloved to save her life? There he lets go of his dreams to ensure her happiness. He kept thinking of ways to convince her to run away with him, but gives it all up in order to let her stay.
Vrell – When she could have escaped home but decides that Achan needs her and so continues her charade though it may mean she’ll never escape.

Gets the girl:

Actually, I’m the one who scoffed at this one before, but all in all, … well, I’m not going to tell you how it ends – that’s for sure. On the other hand, don’t tell Achan – he wouldn’t know what in the world you’re talking about.

Sense of resolution:

After Keven’s comments about cadence, I had moments where I wondered if what could be missing was a clear climax. The beginning half or so of the book felt like it wandered here and there. They were journeys more reluctant than urgent for the reader interspersed with mostly unrelated fights.

However when I reached the end, I was pleased by things finally being brought together and much of the biggest (or at least most obvious to me) withheld secrets were laid bare. A little chaotic, but definitely lively. Perhaps the last page or so was a little rushed, but I was pretty satisfied with the ending – for a first book. If one was waiting for a face off between Vrell and … well, what’s in a name anyway? If that’s what some people wanted, they’ll just have to keep reading.

About Ren Black

Part-time novelist. Weekend artist. Full-time Mother. Ex-poet. Perfectionist by training. Compulsive researcher sporadically. Prone to fits of linguistic commentary Unorthodox Renegade occasionally. Sarcastic by habit... Dreamer Always... Consider Yourself Warned

6 comments on “Review: By Darkness Hid

  1. I agree with most everything you’ve said here, and you even brought out a few things I didn’t consider. I disagree somewhat on your application of the Hero’s Journey. Reluctant Quest – Well, neither of them really have a “quest” other than self survival. They don’t know what’s going on any more than the reader. Death of the Mentor – Sir Gavin returns, so he doesn’t count. And I feel like Bran is really Vrell’s emotional mentor. Companions – did Achen have any? Epiphany – I look at this as a worldview shift. A different way of looking at things. I didn’t see that in either characters. Get the Girl – well, not yet. But hey, The Hero’s Journey is incredibly subjective… so it doesn’t matter I guess.

    Anyway… awesome post. Awesome review. This was my first real book review too. Suffice it to say that I’ve learned a lot about what to say and how to say it.

  2. lol. It’s okay – I disagree somewhat with your Hero’s Journey to begin with. Like I said on the comment to that post, I’m not quite sure what path of evolution your version crossed to get to what it is, but the original talks of a call – to go from the known to the unknown. I don’t remember if it specifics if it should be reluctant or not, only that if they don’t follow the call, the their world or self will pretty much fall apart. It doesn’t specify whatever you mean by “quest”. Personally, in this situation, I think that mere survival is a daunting as any quest. Rand in Eye of the World was out for mere survival. It was Lan and the girl who had an objective. If association works, then the lousy prince has a quest. The important thing is that they leave the known for the unknown – which they both do.

    Regarding the mentor, I’m not sure where you came up with the “death” part. That’s certainly not in the original and I’m rather skeptical of it. All that the original says is that a mentor figure comes and gives them something that they need for the quest. Gavin, Vrell’s mom, Mitt, Jax and Bran all qualify. You yourself used LotR as an example, but Gandalf comes back.

    So your “Epiphany” is supposed to suggest a paradigm shift? Probably not reasonable to expect in book I, but later sure. I was looking at smaller degrees, relative to the larger plot arch. In the original it’s about securing a truth/boon/object of great power … or did it come from the communion with the Goddess/finding bliss part? You might want to go back and compare notes to where it came from. I’m not sure about it’s application to popular stories or classics. Some have that and some not.

    The get the girl thing is most logically evolved from the “finding love/acceptance” stage. It sometimes resolves as a loving oneself, “finding home” or returning home concept. In that case (again in degrees), I would say that the ending works and cover part of that base too.

    Sure Achan had companions. Unfortunately, he hated most of them and they hated him. But he gathered better ones along the way – Bran, Rigil, etc. Chalk it up as a snowball effect.

    You’re right, the monomyth is very subjective – it was created to be so generic and flexible to include most anything story-wise. That broad and it’s easy to loose it’s usefulness (which people highly debate regarding the monomyth). As I said, it was created as a comparison tool to discuss existing stories, not really as a formula or recipe to make them. Or even a required checklist.
    But the exercise of discussing it is fun. I enjoy a challenging debate – especially with logical types like you. Thanks.

  3. lol… Gandalf came back, but not for Frodo! Frodo thought him dead all the way to the end.

    Check my reply to you on the other post. My Hero’s Journey is a different animal from the traditional Monomyth. I changed it, condensed it, and in my opinion, improved it. There is a call to action and there’s usually a defined “if I do this, then this. If I don’t, then this” The hero has to make a choice to follow the call even in the Monomyth, right? What choice did Achen and Vrell make? I don’t think they had a choice. The “Death of the Mentor” is this… the mentor goes away. The student becomes the teacher. The hero is now totally on their own… sink or swim. It’s not just about giving advice. Gavin never went away… Achen was always looking for his return. Anyway… we can debate this for years, I’m sure!

    • there’s always a choice. If Vrell stayed, she’d end up marrying the punk in order to protect her mother and people. If she hid and waited him out, he had to marry someone to get the crown. Her quest was to escape/outwit the punk without making others suffer for it.
      Achan? Relatively similar. Being a character-driven story, it’s all about protecting others and/or helping others. Achan braves the beatings of the prince and the unknown as opposed to the easy road of running in order to protect Gren. Later there are other smaller quests for both of them in order to protect or rescue people.

      Achen wasn’t expecting Gavin to return – he couldn’t read the letter and didn’t understand that part. He had some far-fetched hope of finding him, but from his pov I’d say he was alone.

      *sigh* But you’re right, we could debate this endlessly. For me, I confess, I value the debate probably more than any “conclusion”. It’s an exercise of creativity and resourcefulness.

      Who knows, maybe one day we can do this with Winter.

  4. […] one less than stellar review published here. But perhaps the amazing interview and the second much more praise worthy review overturned any hard […]

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