Book review: Holly Black spins shadowy fantasy in Book Of Night

People with "quickened" shadows are able to manipulate them in Holly Black's novel Book Of Night. PHOTOS: HOLLY BLACK/FACEBOOK, TOR BOOKS

Book Of Night

By Holly Black
Fantasy/Del Rey/Paperback/306 pages/$31.95/Buy here/Borrow here
3 out of 5

"I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me," wrote Robert Louis Stevenson in the poem My Shadow. "And what can be the use of him is more than I can see."

American author Holly Black finds plenty of uses for shadows in Book Of Night, a gritty  fantasy in which people with "quickened" shadows can manipulate them to create illusions, possess someone else or even kill.

Charlie Hall is a thief and con artist dubbed the Charlatan in Western Massachusetts, the "Silicon Valley of shadow magic". Once, she stole grimoires for gloamists, or shadow magic practitioners.

After a job gone wrong, she is trying to keep a low profile at her bartending job, put her little sister through college and make things work with her dependable if mysterious boyfriend Vince, who had his shadow cut away in a past he does not talk about.

But then an old schoolmate asks her for help finding a missing partner. Next, Charlie stumbles over a corpse cracked open like a walnut, his shadow ripped to shreds.

Soon, she is being dragged into the hunt for the Liber Noctem, an old, powerful book of spells that the gloamist community will spill blood over.

Black has been working in children's and young-adult fantasy fiction for 20 years, producing bestsellers such as her series The Folk Of The Air, starting with The Cruel Prince (2018, buy here, borrow here).

She is among a slew of hit young-adult authors who have lately taken the leap into adult fiction, with varying results. Book Of Night joins Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo (2019) and Veronica Roth's Chosen Ones (2020) on the better end of the spectrum.

Black has put much thought into building a world set aslant from ours by an explosion of shadow magic, which has deepened the divide between the haves and have-nots.

In a shady underworld controlled by a corrupt cabal, people sell their shadows for a quick buck, or have them stolen for the black market.

Gloamists covet ancient documents for dangerous experiments, sometimes dying if a PDF is digitised wrong. The untethered shadow of a dead gloamist becomes a Blight, which may run rampant and commit massacres.

The early part of the novel is devoted to set-up and thus a bit of a chore to get through, and the magic system is neither dazzling nor original. Once the plot gets going, however, it proves absorbing enough.

Prickly, jaded Charlie harps perhaps too much on her tendency to make bad decisions, but there is pleasure in the details of her thieving prowess.

The novel enjoyably pours itself into the shape of a fantasy heist, and ends on a canny cliffhanger. Room for a sequel? No shadow of a doubt there.

If you like this, read: Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo (Orion, 2019, $17.95, buy here), another dark adult debut from a bestselling young-adult author. High-school dropout and homicide survivor Alex Stern is given an unlikely free ride at Yale University. The catch: she is to monitor Yale's elite secret societies, who have their own dark secrets.

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