It’s been 20 years since Holly Black posted Dime, the first in its Modern Faerie Tale series. Since then, Black has written a lot – the beautifully weird mid-level novel doll bone; The coldest girl in Coldtown, the vampire book that made me fall in love with vampires again; the Folk of the Air series, which turned its fairytale style into a new key, but you can still say Holly Black book. It’s like walking into a certain type of bar. There are young women who don’t always make the best decisions. There are men with secrets. And there’s a specific, hellish sense of place: Black’s stories often take place in in-between cities, not country or city, borders where things and people intersect. “They were close enough to Springfield that light pollution clouded the night sky, but galaxies still shimmered in the air above them.” This kind of place.
night book, Black’s debut adult novel, picks up in the not-quite-college-town genre where people order both shitty beers and chartreuse shots at the local bar, and it feels like a homecoming. We are obviously in a Holly Black story. Charlie Hall, bartender, thief and con man, is about to confront a lady who walks in and asks Charlie to do something. She should say no. She won’t.
It’s familiar territory and yet not, because Black presents this scene a little differently – with a short prologue that introduces the idea of a blood-sipping shadow. Peter Pan it’s not.
Shadow magic is new, in Charlie’s world right next to ours. At 28, she’s old enough to remember a time before everyone knew about gloamists, who work with shadows in a variety of (often dubious) ways. Her younger sister, Poesy, grew up wanting magic and hunting shreds of it on the internet, working as a hotline medium, constantly pulling tarot cards.
Magic is power, and people will do many things for power. Shadows are stolen, exchanged, altered; people looking for more information on how to “speed up” and harness shadow magic will be leaning towards dark enough ends to get their hands on something like the book of the night, an ancient tome that may or may not contain a ritual that will allow a person to separate their shadow from themselves. Although, as far as anyone knows, disembodied shadows, or plagues, aren’t usually that big.
But when a magic is new, no one yet really knows everything there is to know about it.
night bookThe plot begins with a missing husband, then takes a difficult turn towards the less mundane. Black puts Charlie’s present hand in hand with his past; both timelines work perfectly to contradict everything Charlie thinks about herself: that she’s broken, cursed, only good at unsavory things, only capable of making bad decisions. She’s a young woman neglected by her mother, used by her mother’s boyfriend, left to fend for herself at best, and dragged into horrific situations at worst. In both timelines, Black uncovers Charlie’s connection to the very wealthy and very powerful Lionel Salt, whose name thrills our heroine from the get-go. When a poor random kid like Poesy wants magic, she has to scratch and scratch and wish like crazy, and there’s no guarantee she’ll get any. When someone like Salt wants it…he gets what he wants.
It is the presence of Lionel Salt, perhaps more than anything, that makes night book a rambling cousin of Leigh Bardugo Ninth House. Black’s story is set near a university or several, not Yale’s secret societies, and Charlie Hall is no Galaxy Stern; she doesn’t have a particular magical skill that sets her apart. Black and Bardugo both tell dark stories full of mystery, but they tell them in their own way: Atmospheric and tense Bardugo, Black with an eye for grit, the details of how a car won’t start and how the morning after a night full of bad choices feels. But Charlie and Alex both come face to face with powerful, established, supposedly honest people who have shaped the world so they can navigate it easily. All others, like Charlie and Alex, are disposable as soon as they cease to be useful. People are exploitable. Even wealth is not always enough protection for those who think outside the box.
night book is full of doors, of roads to history: there is shadow magic, which is new and nebulous and not yet fully understood; there’s Charlie’s relationship with Vince, a quiet wall of a man who may have secrets of his own; there’s the inhabited setting, one of Black’s perfect in-between worlds, the medium towns, where people in the service industry all know each other, too many people went to high school together, and yet there’s still a bar owned by a dominatrix and an entire local cabal of gloamists. It’s just big enough that everyone knows everyone’s story, but maybe not the right version.
But the best path to this story is Charlie herself. She is full of rough edges and soft heart; she’s absolutely convinced of her terrible choices, but on the outside she looks more like someone trying to make the most of her rather unusual skills than a girl with a knack for doing the wrong thing. What gets him into the mess that is his story isn’t a chance for a big score or revenge. It is his desire to help his sister go to college. She’s a kind of dark heroine in a world where everyone’s darkness seems visible on the outside, in their weathered shadows, but that’s just another illusion – no longer an accurate picture of who they are. are at heart only the black t-shirts of Charlie and “faithful, naughty Crocs. She is perfectly shaped by her origin, a place of shadowy slaughter, drowned cities and lost opportunities. Only the rich and the privileged can turn into something else, and it doesn’t always go as planned.
night book ends in a way that extremely (extremely!!!!) suggests that it’s not a standalone novel, so it’s a bit of a relief to find that the official word is Charlie’s Adventures will continue (but not before 2024). It’s not a book with a single easy-to-solve mystery, although there is satisfaction in solving it. There’s also clearly a lot more for Black to explore in his strange, familiar, and beautifully constructed latest version of our world.
night book is published by Tor Books.
Molly Templeton lives and writes in Oregon and spends as much time as possible in the woods. Sometimes she talks about books on Twitter.