Darkhaven by A.F.E. Smith
Release date: July 2 2015 (e-book only)
Source: eARC from publisher via NetGalley
The nitty-gritty: A beautifully written and perfectly paced debut with unique world-building, wonderfully nuanced characters, and oh yes, I cried at the end.
There were very few women in Darkhaven; it was a place for men, hard-eyed and dour. Serenna was like a bright bird caught within its walls, something vibrant and incongruous.
When the author approached me and asked me to participate in her blog tour, I had never heard of Darkhaven, but I’m so glad I took a chance on an unknown (to me) book. Darkhaven was a surprisingly polished and well-crafted story. A.F.E. Smith has worked hard on her story, and that hard work shows. I’m not sure whether or not this book is the first in a series, but I certainly hope it is. I grew to love Smith’s odd conglomeration of light steampunk and traditional fantasy, and although I loved her descriptions of the world of Darkhaven, I still have lots of questions. Many of the book’s mysteries are answered at the end, but not all of them, which makes me anxious for a sequel.
Ayla Nightshade lives in a dark and gloomy place called Darkhaven, the seventh of a series of “rings” which lies at the center of the city of Arkannen. The Nightshades are Changers, people with the ability to Change into creatures of mythology—Firedrake, Unicorn, Griffin, Phoenix and Hydra are the five main types—but not all Nightshades are able to Change, and sometimes hybrid Changers are born, whose forms are a mix of two or more types. Ayla is one such Changer, but her form is a secret to all except her brother, Myrren.
Myrren, on the other hand, is not able to Change at all, and is a disgrace to his father Florentyn, the powerful overlord who rules Darkhaven with an iron fist. For this reason, Florentyn has decided to make Ayla his heir instead of Myrren, but Ayla wants nothing to do with it and resists her father’s wishes.
When the story begins, Ayla has been accused of injuring a priestess named Serenna, who claims to have been attacked by a monstrous beast with scales and huge teeth, thought to be Ayla’s Changed form. But Myrren doesn’t believe for a second that Ayla was responsible, and so he helps her escape the small incarceration room where Florentyn has had her under lock and key for the past month. On the run, Ayla meets Tomas Caraway, who is determined to help clear her name. But when another, more deadly attack occurs, Ayla knows she can’t go home until the real attacker is found.
I absolutely fell in love with several of the characters of Darkhaven, and believe it or not, our main heroine Ayla wasn’t one of them, although I did like her quite a bit. But it was the side characters that got my attention, in particular Tomas Caraway, a disgraced member of the Helm, the army of Smith’s world, whose job is to protect the Nightshade family. Five years ago he failed in his duties, and his sword was broken and he was banished to the fourth ring of Arkannen. When he first appears in the story, he’s a pitiful drunk nicknamed Brokeblade, living in squalor and spending every coin he earns on drink. But once he runs into Ayla, he finds new purpose in helping prove her innocence. Caraway appears weak in the beginning of the story, but turns out to be strong, loyal and true as the story progresses.
I also loved Naeve Sorrow, a sellsword (assassin) who accepts a job protecting a pregnant girl named Elisse. Even though she kills for money, I knew immediately that Naeve had a soft side, and it was just a matter of time before Elisse brought that side out. Elisse’s backstory is pretty horrific, and I admired her positive outlook on life, even after everything she’s been through. Naeve and Elisse are thrown together without their consent, but little by little they come to admire and appreciate the other.
Another favorite character was Serenna, the priestess who was injured by the mysterious creature. She joins forces with Ayla’s brother Myrren to discover the mysterious identity of the beast. Most of the characters are multi-layered and I loved getting to know each of them.
Smith has created a fascinating fantasy world in the city of Arkannen, a place made up of seven concentric rings that are each separated by a gate, and at the very center, the smallest of the rings, is Darkhaven. (She has a lovely map on her website that came in very handy while I was reading the book!) The idea is that the further into the rings you go, the harder it is to get close to Darkhaven, where the Nightshade family rules. Each ring has a different purpose—one is where the Helm train and fight, one is a residential ring, one is where tradespeople work, etc—and I loved the way the author makes the city of Arkannen a living, breathing part of the story.
Smith writes amazing action scenes, and there is plenty of sword play for the diehard fantasy fans out there. And because at its heart, this is a chase story—Ayla is running away from the Helm, the Helm is trying to find and arrest her, Caraway chases after Ayla at one point when she’s captured—the action sequences have to be good. And luckily, they are. The story also has lots of misdirection and twists, and I was honestly surprised at the end when the killer is finally revealed!
My only quibble with Darkhaven is that even though this is a story about Changers, people who can transform into powerful and dangerous creatures, there is very little actual changing. As you may guess, the lovely flying unicorn creature on the book cover is indeed a Changer, which leads the reader to believe that this creature will feature heavily in the book. Unfortunately, we only get a few instances of Changing, and I was especially disappointed by Ayla’s anticlimactic Changing scenes. This was mostly a human story, and while I loved the humans and their interactions with each other, I also wanted more golden flying unicorns!
But because this is a human story, I was rewarded at the end with unexpected emotion. The ending was both heart-wrenching and satisfying, and Smith resolves several of the developing relationships between various characters. By the end, I wanted more, as she very neatly wraps things up, but also leaves breadcrumbs that could easily lead to a sequel. There’s a lot to love about Darkhaven, and A.F.E. Smith is definitely a writer to watch.
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. Darkhaven releases on July 2 exclusively in e-book format, and will be available in paperback January 2016.
I’ll be joining A.F.E. Smith’s blog tour, and my stop is July 8th! Come back and read my interview with the author and enter to win a cool Darkhaven prize pack!
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