It’s been 20 years since Holly Black published Tithe, the first of her Modern Faerie Tale series. Since then, Black has written a lot of things—the beautifully eerie middle-grade novel Doll Bones; The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, the vampire book that made me love vampires again; the Folk of the Air series, which shifted her faerie style into a new key—but you can always tell a Holly Black book. It’s like walking into a certain kind of bar. There are young women who don’t always make the best decisions. There are men with secrets. And there’s a specific, netherworldly sense of place: Black’s stories often take place in in-between towns, not the country or the city, boundarylands where things and people cross over. “They were close enough to Springfield for light pollution to dull the night skies, but galaxies still spangled the air above them.” That kind of place.
Book of Night, Black’s first novel for adults, picks up in the kind of not-fully-a-college town where people order both shitty beers and shots of chartreuse in the local bar, and it feels like a homecoming. We’re obviously in a Holly Black story. Charlie Hall, bartender and thief and con artist, is about to face a dame who walks in and asks Charlie to do something. She should say no. She won’t.
It’s familiar territory and yet not, because Black sets this scene a little differently—with a short prologue that introduces the idea of a blood-sipping shadow. Peter Pan this is not.
Shadow magic is new, in Charlie’s just-sideways-from-ours world. At 28, she’s old enough to remember a time before everyone knew about gloamists, who work with shadows in various (often dubious) ways. Her younger sister, Poesy, grew up wanting magic, and chases shreds of it across the internet, working as a hotline psychic, constantly drawing tarot cards.
Magic is power, and people will do a lot of things for power. Shadows are stolen, traded, altered; people seeking more information on how to “quicken” and harness shadow magic will stoop to some pretty dark ends to get their hands on something like the Liber Noctem, an ancient tome which may or may not contain a ritual that will allow a person to separate their shadow from themselves. Though as far as anyone knows, disembodied shadows, or blights, are generally not so great.
But when a magic is new, no one really knows everything there is to know about it yet.
Book of Night’s plot begins with a missing husband and then takes a hard turn into the less mundane. Black puts Charlie’s present hand in hand with her past; the two timelines work neatly to contradict everything Charlie thinks about herself: that she’s broken, cursed, only good at unsavory things, only able to make bad decisions. She’s a young woman neglected by her mother, used by her mother’s boyfriend, left to fend for herself at best and dragged into horrible situations at worst. In both timelines, Black teases out Charlie’s connection to the very wealthy, very powerful Lionel Salt, whose name makes our heroine flinch from the get-go. When a random poor kid like Poesy wants magic, she has to scrap and scrape and wish like crazy, and there’s no guarantee she’ll get any of it. When someone like Salt wants it … he gets what he wants.
It’s the presence of Lionel Salt, maybe more than anything, that makes Book of Night a scrappy cousin to Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House. Black’s tale is set near a university or several, not within the secret societies of Yale, and Charlie Hall is not Galaxy Stern; she doesn’t have a special magical skill that sets her apart. Black and Bardugo both tell dark stories full of mystery, but they tell them in their own ways: Bardugo atmospheric and tense, Black with an eye for the grit, the details in how a car won’t start and how the morning after a night full of bad choices feels. But both Charlie and Alex find themselves up against powerful, established, supposedly upstanding folks who’ve shaped the world so that they can move through it easily. Everyone else—everyone like Charlie and Alex—is disposable as soon as they stop being useful. People are exploitable. Even wealth isn’t always enough protection for those who step out of line.
Book of Night is full of doorways, roads into the story: There’s the shadow magic, which is new and nebulous and not yet fully understood; there’s Charlie’s relationship with Vince, a quiet wall of a man who may have secrets of his own; there’s the lived-in setting, one of Black’s perfect middle-worlds, medium-towns, where the service industry folks all know each other, too many people went to high school together, and yet there’s still a bar owned by a dominatrix and a whole local cabal of gloamists. It’s just big enough that everyone knows everyone else’s story—but maybe not the correct version of it.
But the best road into this story is Charlie herself. She’s all rough edges and tender heart; she’s absolutely convinced of her terrible choices, but from the outside, she looks more like someone trying to make the most of her rather unusual skillset than a girl with a knack for doing the wrong thing. What drags her into the mess that is her story isn’t a chance at a big score or revenge. It’s her desire to help her sister go to college. She’s a noir heroine of a sort in a world where everyone’s darkness seems visible on the outside, in their altered shadows, but that’s just another illusion—no more a precise image of who they are at heart than Charlie’s black t-shirts and “trusty, ugly Crocs.” She’s perfectly shaped by where she’s from, a place of shadow massacres and drowned towns and lost opportunities. Only the wealthy and privileged can turn themselves into something else, and that doesn’t always work out as planned.
Book of Night ends in a manner that extremely (extremely!!!!) suggests it’s not a standalone novel, so it’s a bit of a relief to find that the official word is that Charlie’s adventures will continue (though not until 2024). This isn’t a book with a single, easily solvable mystery, though there is satisfaction in its resolution. There’s also clearly a lot more for Black to explore in her latest eerie, familiar, and beautifully built version of our world.
Book of Night is published by Tor Books.