Author: Robin LaFevers | Publisher: Andersen Press
When Sybella accompanies the Duchess of Brittany to France, she expects trouble, but she isn’t expecting a deadly trap. Surrounded by enemies both known and unknown, Sybella searches for the undercover assassins from the convent of St. Mortain who were placed in the French court years ago.
Genevieve has been undercover for so many years, she no longer knows who she is or what she’s supposed to be fighting for. When she discovers a hidden prisoner who may be of importance, she takes matters into her own hands.
As these two worlds collide, the fate of the Duchess, Brittany, and everything Sybella and Genevieve have come to love hangs in the balance.
Having heard such wonderful things about Robin LaFevers, I was excited to read Courting Darkness. Unfortunately, while the premise was intriguing, it just didn’t live up to expectations. I gave up eventually and ended up skimming the last third of the book.
Courting Darkness is somewhere between historical fiction and fantasy. While I’m usually a fan of that mix, the combination just didn’t work for me here. The reader was tantalised with the anticipation of something magical in the beginning, with talk of Gifts and gods – but these elements never developed. I’d go so far as to say, never actually materialised. And if you removed the fantastical, you’d still have the exact same book – so I’m not sure why the author included them at all. It didn’t seem like these “Gifts” added anything to the characters or the story. Without them, you’d still have two girls trained at an assassin’s convent, who have infiltrated the French court. They would still follow the same story arc and be the exact same people. The fantasy aspect got lost in all the personal and political intrigue, and, as result, ended up feeling like an afterthought.
I also found the whole premise on which the fantasy was based confusing. I never really did get to the bottom of it. So, Death is a man – he’s fathered children and those children have certain Gifts… But then he’s not a man, and for some reason he’s in a war and he dies? But is he actually dead…? Who are these other gods? I didn’t understand at all.
If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you’ll know how dubious I am about split narratives. I think it takes a great deal of skill to pull it off, and it’s a massively overused trope in modern fantasy. I’ve seen it done well – don’t get me wrong. But far more often, as in the case of Courting Darkness, it just doesn’t work. The narrative would have been stronger and better paced with a single point of focus, and the reader would have had a chance to more fully explore the characterisation. With a dual narrative, the whole thing was impossibly slow; frustratingly so. And since neither protagonist was really well developed enough to carry their own story, it ended up being a distraction.
As far as the characters went, I thought they were fine. I like a strong female lead, and Courting Darkness has two. The problem was, they were essentially the same, rather one-dimensional, person. Genevieve has the slightly more interesting story arc. It had promise. I just felt that the author shied away from aspects which could have made her truly interesting, or where she could have developed as a character. I actually found both women a little irritating. The point of a strong female lead, or any lead in a book, I suppose, is to watch them grab their own destiny and move their own story forward – and they just didn’t. There was a lot of umming and ahhing and soul searching, in lieu of decision making or defining moments.
All in all, I found Courting Darkness exceeding slow, frustrating, and lacking in any real character or plot development. I didn’t enjoy the courtly intrigues, which were basically the entire plot; they lacked the element of surprise, for me. And I just don’t care for interpersonal whinge drama. If you’re going to write courtly intrigue, you need to set the landscape up a little more effectively. I felt like I was picking up the second book in a series, rather than the first – there was too much that went unexplained, including the fantasy, history, and staging.
I’m giving myself props for persevering as long as I did with Courting Darkness, but I feel a little cheated – I kept waiting for something to happen, and it just never did. It lacked any satisfaction of resolution. I was disappointed.