When you were growing up, did you play with your shadow? In her wondrous, sinister and engrossing adult debut, Book of Night, young adult fantasy veteran Holly Black presents a decidedly mature perspective on our relationships with our silhouettes. It’s a wildly entertaining, magic-filled mystery haunted by criminals with murky intentions.
Charlie Hall slings drinks at a seedy bar in the Berkshires, but it’s better (well, safer) than her previous profession as a small-time con artist and thief. She’s happy to have some stability after her long involvement in the underground world of gloamists, magicians who can manipulate shadows. In this world, shadows can be altered to look different for entertainment, but they can also be used for more nefarious purposes such as influencing someone’s thoughts or even committing murder. Charlie’s been smart about avoiding trouble, but when a bar patron is murdered and a mysterious millionaire from Charlie’s past returns, she’s forced to revisit her former life in order to find a book filled with unimaginable power.
A consistent atmosphere of dread and foreboding reinforces the core magic system, giving shadow magic a sharp, dangerous edge. Black unspools the mystery patiently and deliberately, interjecting short chapters titled “The Past” that reveal specific moments from Charlie’s memory into the present-day narrative. I couldn’t help but think of film noir while reading, not only because of the dark aesthetic and criminal elements but also because of the incredible weight of each character’s past.
Shadow magic has a multitude of metaphoric implications, and Black keeps a firm hand on the wheel as she explores them. The idea of shadows, indelibly attached to us in our world, being a means for division and deception is intriguing; Think Peter Pan and his ongoing struggle to rein in his own shadow. Though humorous, the idea of losing control of something that is part of us is also uncomfortable. That sense of discomfort and destabilization is even greater in Book of Night as shadows are used in various creative yet frightening ways. An ongoing theme of obfuscation, of truths being hidden or only half-revealed, also contributes to this feeling of unease.
Black’s plot is expertly crafted, her magic system simple yet interesting, her characters wounded and very human (well, most of them anyway). Mystery fans will find a lot to love here, but so will lovers of more traditional fantasy. Book of Night will have you looking over your shoulder, out of the corner of your eye, wondering if your shadow just moved.