Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Review: Darkhaven by A.F.E. Smith

Cover of Darkhaven, featuring a winged unicorn in flight. The creature is gold, with black smoke spiraling out from its wings and hind legs.
Review copy provided by the publisher at the author’s request.

The shapeshifting Nightshade family has ruled the country of Mirrorvale for centuries, but their fortunes have begun to waver. Myrren, the eldest scion, can’t Change at all, while his half-blood sister, Ayla, assumes a hybrid creature-form that has their father fuming. Things are already tense within the family domicile when a Changer attacks a priestess. Ayla falls under scrutiny as the only known Changer aside from her father, and the evidence against her mounts when the family patriarch is himself killed by the same being.

Desperate to prove her innocence, Ayla flees the family compound at Darkhaven and allies herself with a disgraced guardsman, while Myrren turns to the injured priestess for help with his own investigation. And all the while, the rogue Changer continues their hunt through Darkhaven.

DARKHAVEN hooked me quickly with its assured prose, nonstandard secondary world, and willingness to explore shapeshifting from another angle. Ultimately, though, it proved to be a mix of things I’m keen to see more of in fantasy and things I’d love the genre to move away from.

We shall start, of course, with the good stuff.

The setting definitely ranks amongst DARKHAVEN’s charms. Y’all know I’m always thrilled to discover a new non-medieval fantasy world, and this one ticks all my boxes. Arkannen, the city below Darkhaven, is far from feudal despite the whole overlord setup. It sports an entire district related to airships. People get around on trams and mechanical cycles. Not everyone has plumbing yet, but the technology is on the rise. And pistols occasionally make their way into Mirrorvale, though they’re only manufactured abroad.

There’s no hint, either, that these technologies have ousted magic, or that the Nightshades and any other magic users who may be lurking around ought to bow out gracefully to make room for progress. The Changers are in decline, yes, but that’s because they’ve driven themselves into the ground with their failure to adapt to new modes of thought. They still have a place in this world; they just need to adjust their thinking accordingly (and be wary of pistols, which can cause them far more harm than bladed weaponry).

I would have liked a closer look at this world's inner workings, but the sort of details that interest me (like the changing face of technology and the the way the political system evolves to reflect it) weren’t necessarily relevant to the story at hand. Smith gives the reader enough to get by on without bogging the text down with the detailed examinations people like me enjoy but more plot-oriented readers balk at. And given the mystery angle, I'm sure DARKHAVEN with attract a plot-oriented readership.

The genre is also a big draw. DARKHAVEN is a fantasy mystery; something I’m always excited to encounter. It’s been a few years since I’ve managed to squeeze much crime fiction into my reading list, but it remains a favoured genre. Ain’t nothin’ I enjoy more than the opportunity to guess along with a detective (or two) and see all my theories confirmed at the end.

Smith tackles the mystery from three angles: Ayla’s search for answers alongside Caraway, the disgraced guardsman she blames for her mother’s death; Myrren’s secretive investigation into the matter with help from the priestess Serenna, who is the only living witness to the guilty Changer’s creature-self; and Helm Captain Travers’s formal enquiry into the matter. All three storylines weave together to give us the clues we need to figure out what’s going on with the rogue Changer, while a fourth thread involving a woman who bears a shocking resemblance to the Nightshade line links the lot.

I’m pleased to report I had the pleasure of watching all my theories coalesce into facts. Go me!

Finally, there are queer women, and the only person who makes any jibes about their relationship is the villain. Let’s have more accepted queer women in fantasy, please.

These three elements pleased me very much and had me hard into the book for most of its duration, but a few other things crept in and took me out of the story. They may count as spoilers, depending on how stringent you are about such things, but rest assured I won’t ruin the mystery for you. I’m pretty sure everything I’m about to discuss is easily guessable, too, especially if you have at least a passing familiarity with either crime fiction or fantasy.

My most important sticking point involves Captain Travers’s motivation. Everything he does, he does because he wants to rape Ayla. He’s desperate to get her alone in a small space where she can’t Change, and he’s more than willing to fudge evidence and twist the intent of the law in order to achieve this terrible goal.

It’s a frightening motive, yes, and it’s creepy as all hell, but it’s also one of the oldest, most overdone, and least interesting stories in fantasy. I’m sick of it. Yes, Travers’s attitude towards Ayla immediately tells us he’s bad news, but surely there are other ways to villainize him. Even without the rape angle, his willingness to consign an innocent woman to life within a tiny, stone box in the name of "following the law" would've been enough to render him terrifying.

My other sticking point is a decidedly personal one that weighs relatively little, given that DARKHAVEN is a mystery and not a romance; namely, everyone who’s going to fall in love with someone else does so within the space of a week. Their connections are all vastly accelerated (though one character does have a prior, if older, association with their soon-to-be beloved), without enough chemistry behind them to justify such a speedy shift from, “I might like you” to “I love you, you glorious, perfect treasure.”

My dislike for instalove aside, it does seem to be the norm with mysteries. If I think of DARKHAVEN as a fantasy with a romantic component, I’m disappointed; if I consider it crime fiction in a fantasy setting, it’s probably about right (though it’s still not to my taste).

I couldn’t quite love the book on account of the rape motive and the instalove, but I still enjoyed it very much. The prose remains elegant and assured throughout, and the story’s charms are enough to keep the reader engaged and interested.

You'll also want to know that DARKHAVEN stands alone, though it does leave enough space for a potential sequel down the line. Should one arise, I’ll gladly read it.


While I always advocate your local library as the absolute best source for books, I recognize this may not be an option with a digital first title like this one. (The print edition will be out next January.) If you're in search of another way to read DARKHAVEN, you can try:

I receive a small percentage of the purchase price if you buy the book through one of the above links.


  1. I sighed hugely when I got to the paragraph about the villain's motivation. Yeah, if I never read another book or see another movie where the villain's main motive is sexual obsession, that would be FINE. I have been consuming media about sexual obsession for like twenty years now? Like starting with the Disney version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1996. I am over it.

    1. Same here. The more I think about it, the more I wish he'd just been obsessed with the letter of the law instead of desperate to get his paws on Ayla.