Book of Night Review: Life’s but a Walking Shadow

By Christina Ladd on

About Christina Ladd

One of the Books & Comics editors at Geekly. She/her. Sailor Rainbow. Glitter and spite and everything bright.

 

Pages 114 and 264. Those are the only two spots I stopped in Book of Night, the first because I fell asleep mid-page, and the second because I was pissed at the universe. Book of Night should not end. It needs to keep going. Only forty more pages and then the long, cold wait for the sequel? What the hell, universe! 2022 is hard enough!

This is by no means an indictment of Holly Black’s process or progress, by the way. When you write a book this good, you should have the time you need to follow it up in whatever way suits best. You shouldn’t ever rush a master, and at this point we can safely call Holly Black a master.

This is Holly Black’s first “adult” novel, but her YA has never really been all that young. Lots of girls forced to grow up too fast, lots of “adult situations.” And not in the Gossip Girl way, in which all the “teens” are 25, playing caricatures of rich people written by committees of middle class writers who are half-scornful, half-envious. No, Black has always written teenagers the way they are, angry and horny and desperate for love. Black just carries that forward in time in Book of Night is all. Charlie in her 30s is so utterly the product of Charlie in her teens, which sounds like it should be obvious, but it’s not easy to do. Getting a character to have the same voice and personality but make meaningfully different choices based on experience requires a steady and subtle hand, and Black’s experience shows here. This is a novel that feels like a dark rush, but it’s been carefully, even painstakingly crafted at every one of its many, many turns. 

That’s the paradox of the artist: you have to work hard enough to seem like you’re not working at all. And here’s another: the paradox of great stories is that the more particular you are, the more universal your appeal. People may love archetypes and tropes, but they don’t actually want to read the story of Love Interest One meeting Love Interest Two in Offbeat Café. (Actually I would read that, but only as a satire.) Book of Night is so enjoyable because it’s steeped in particularities, both the mundane and the magical. 

I guess we have to talk about the magic system as a system. So: it’s effective. It’s internally consistent. It’s spooky and cool and all the things shadow magic should be. I’m more interested in the magic as a part of the world, though. Very much like The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, which put its fantasy elements right out in the public view, Book of Night has its glooms existing as eerie but largely accepted segments of the population. Most of their work is—forgive me—done in the shadows, but there are semi-public figures too, as well as enthusiasts, detractors, and researchers who study glooms and shadows. There is no overriding ethos: glooms are people, and people are as messy, altruistic, narcissistic, smart, dumb, bad, and good as they’ve always been. And Charlie is the best possible person to help us meet all of them.

From putting lipstick on before a fight to getting stuck with Walgreens’ clothing, Charlie inhabits her world as few characters are able to do. The reality of it seems effortless, but I can assure you it’s not. Black has to know the way the floors get sticky at dive bars and the way your makeup feels when you wake up after a bad night out, has to understand the way you live when your car is always on the verge of breaking down. She’s thought as much about those little moments as she has about the big reveals and the thorny intricacies of the plot, and it shows. She’s polished this book until it glows. Every one of Charlie’s jagged edges shines with care, and the book reflects that a thousandfold into its prose and plot, a sharp and gleaming masterpiece.

I’m a huge fan of heists and a big proponent of the “one last score” sub-genre, and this delivers that and more. Considering that it’s only about 300 pages, the book is absolutely brimming over with cons, tricks, and hoodwinks. I appreciate how all of these are pulled without recourse to cinematic nonsense–there aren’t lasers, or life-accurate rubber masks, or any other expensive gimmicks. There’s just Charlie, perpetually broke, with only her knowledge, her moxie, and a couple of good cosmetic tricks to get her into and out of some sticky situations. She doesn’t even have shadow magic! Yet she holds her own as she starts going after a cabal of glooms, getting pulled deeper and deeper no matter how much she wants to stop.

Interspersed with her current capers are glimpses of Charlie’s teenage years as a burgeoning crook, following the only path that would keep her relatively safe and make her feel relatively special. Or so she thinks, but it turns out that “relatively” and “not at all” are close cousins. She runs afoul of a very wealthy and very sadistic man who makes sure she knows that she’s nobody in his world. Charlie already suspected it–her mother badly neglected her–but she spends the intervening years until we meet her both trying and failing to defy that conviction. The only thing she was ever good at (she thinks) was crime. 

So is Charlie doomed to walk the wide and crooked? Or can she stay straight? Those are the options she thinks she has, but this isn’t a world of exclusively black and white. Black (again, sorry, no pun intended) really plumbs the depths of the nature of shadows, exploring the ways that our darker sides are not necessarily evil. Evil can wear a very proper suit and abide by the letter of the law. Shadow magic is legal, after all. So is owning grimoires. But if Charlie doesn’t want a very dangerous “upstanding citizen” to get his hands on dangerous magic, she can’t play by the rules. 

Book of Night embraces this Jungian view of shadows at both the personal and societal level, which is to say, we as people and we as members of a culture all have things that we don’t want to acknowledge. We don’t like to think about the fact that the rules are different for the wealthy and powerful, and so we suppress it along with all the other knowledge and desires and powers we wish we didn’t have. Like all the other shadows in Book of Night, the shadow of our collective unconsciousness do eventually come bubbling to the surface. But, mediated by Charlie, we have a chance to examine those uncomfortable truths–and maybe make them work for us.

Book of Night will be released May 3rd.

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