A Simple, Measured Fantasy: Dark of the West by Joanna Hathaway

Joanna Hathaway’s debut novel, Dark of the West, can classify itself as fantasy by virtue of its setting: a secondary world whose technology seems to fit an equivalent of our 1930s. With its radios and tanks and machine guns, it perhaps bears comparison with Lara Elena Donnelly’s Amberlough, another magicless fantasy novel with a 1920s/1930s feel. But Amberlough and its sequels foreground the complexities of politics, understanding that while the personal is political, social movements can be bigger (more complicated, more long-lasting) than any single person. For Dark of the West, there appears to be no such thing as competing political interests. Everything, it seems, comes down to personal animus or personal loyalty.

Aurelia Isendare is a princess of a small kingdom, raised in privilege and sheltered from real responsibility while her brother is groomed for the throne. She’s kind to small animals, hates hunting, and has never fired a gun.

Athan Dakare is the youngest son of the ruthless general who united three nations under one flag. He’s a fighter pilot who longs for a life away from war and the front lines, but the family he was born into allows him no escape. When Athan’s mother is shot, General Dakare blames an old rival (the reader never learns what led to them being old rivals, or why no one but the general seems to know that they’re old rivals)—who turns out to be Aurelia’s mother, the Queen of Etania.

Meanwhile, said Queen of Etania has been trying to forge an alliance with General Dakare, which has led to him being invited for a state visit. In the course of the state visit, Athan is ordered to spy on Aurelia and her brother. But proximity to the princess leads to attraction. Aurelia finds herself falling for Athan—who’s travelling as an unimportant junior officer—while Athan develops feelings for Aurelia in return.

The political and social worldbuilding visible in Dark of the West is simplistic. Apart from General Dakare’s nation of Savient—ruled apparently without issues by Dakare’s military dictatorship—the world seems to be divided into two regions: the “North,” which is composed kingdoms who apparently universally believe in their royal families’ divine right to rule, and have never heard of such a thing as a republic; and the “South,” a region colonised by the Northern kingdoms (though the novel gives very little in the way of details of that colonisation: whether it is settler colonialism or imperial exploitation of native populations or a combination) and much wracked by insurrection. The Queen of Etania has family ties in the South, which she has not discussed with her children—and which she seems to have been at pains to conceal from her adoptive nation of Etania—and some kind of connection to the South’s most famous revolutionary, Seath of the Nahir.

Dark of the West is not good at showing its cards at the right moment: if the novel made it clearer how these people were connected and the reasons for their actions, it might have given me a lot more reason to care. To care about General Dakare’s desire for a war in the South, Aurelia’s opposition to a political marriage, the machinations of Aurelia’s mother, Athan’s family dynamics, and Athan and Aurelia’s adolescent mutual attraction. It’s not as though Dark of the West has the kind of high-octane fast-paced thriller plot that leaves no room for extraneities. On the contrary, it possesses itself of a measured, even meandering approach to narrative, one that appears to have plenty of room for diversions as it slowly builds towards Athan and Aurelia discovering that the truths they take as self-evident might not be so.

Dark of the West has a prologue. The prologue involves older versions of Athan and Aurelia, and, unfortunately, the prologue is the most compelling thing about Dark of the West. The older versions of Athan and Aurelia have seen some shit. They’ve been through the wars, literally. In comparison, the younger Aurelia and the younger Athan who are Dark of the West’s main characters and narrators—for after the prologue, the narrative switches to two separate first person perspectives—come across as bland and unformed. Their emotional journeys over the course of the novel are straightforward and predictable. Mind you, it’s always possible that I’m not a good audience for the majority of Young Adult fantasy these days. I grow crankier and more demanding with every year, and many younger readers of YA will find freshness and novelty in works that come across to me as ploughing in familiar ground—emotionally, if not in the specific detail.

As a whole, Dark of the West strikes me as readable but, like its characters, bland and rather unformed. On the other hand, it’s the first novel in a new series. Maybe its sequels can grow up to be more full of flavour and verve.

Dark of the West is available from Tor Teen.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and was nominated for a 2018 Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

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