Darkborn by Alison Sinclair

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Rating 8.9/10
Hard to see, the dark side is

One of the first questions my lady asked me when we began discussing fantasy literature, was whether I’d read Alison Sinclair’s Darkborn trilogy, especially when I revealed how fond I was of very alien worlds with very human characters. After a run of more traditional sf and fantasy therefore when I was looking for a slightly different experience, it seemed time to give Sinclair’s work a try.

For the past 800 years, ever since the mage Imogene’s curse, the people have been divided. Darkness dissolves the Lightborn, while light burns the Darkborn. In the city of Minhorne, the two races live side by side, with the Darkborn being sure to be indoors between dawn and sunset. So when the pregnant Tercelle Amberly stumbles into physician Balthasar Hearne’s home near dawn, he is bound as much by custom, as by professional duty, to help her. Delivering Tercelle’s twins however, Balthasar is shocked to discover the babies are sighted as no Darkborn should be, a fact which casts doubt on not only the identity, but even the species of the twin’s father, particularly since Tercelle is betrothed to one of the most powerful and ruthless nobles in Minhorne.

Meanwhile, Balthasar’s high born wife Telmaine attends a society ball where she meets the notorious Baron Ishmael di Studier, a man as infamous for his scandalously open use of magic, as he is famous for his  keeping the borderlands safe from the marauding threat of the sinister Shadowborn. When it becomes clear that Balthasar has become the target of brutal forces searching for the unusual infants, Telmaine reluctantly allies herself with Ishmael, a reluctance based not only on her concern for her reputation, but the fact that Telmaine is a powerful mage who has denied her abilities all her life. Ishmael, Telmaine and Balthasar; not to mention Telmaine and Balthasar’s two young daughters, find themselves caught up in a web of magic, violence and political intrigue which stretches from the parties and gardens of polite society, to the criminal underworld and beyond.

Despite its highly unusual setting, the first and primary thing to say about Darkborn, is that rarely have I encountered a book with characters of this level of complexity or realism. Sinclair resembles Martin in the way that she cuts directly between the viewpoints of Balthasar, Telmaine and Ishmael with named sections, all of whom are far more than they appear on the surface, and all of whom react to the trying circumstances they’re put through like adults, not like archetypal fantasy clichés, hollow models of heroism or sulky teenagers.

Sinclair is one of those rare writers who can freely discuss character emotions (particularly through Telmaine’s perspective since as a mage she can tell anyone’s emotions with a touch), and yet not make the reader feel they’re being dictated to, especially considering her characters are not necessarily simple.

Ishmael initially seems something of an ideal, a rough and ready bad boy with no social graces but a heart of gold, however, while it is true he is attracted to Telmaine, there is little to no question of this attraction going too much further due to both his respect for Balthasar, and his inherent respect for Telmaine’s power and ability to keep said power from a society which previously ostracised him.

Balthasar is that rare thing. A truly nice guy, the fact that we catch up with Telmaine and Balthasar ten years into their marriage, with Telmaine having consciously married beneath her social station because of what she picked up of Balthasar’s character tells you most of what you need to know about Balthasar. Yet he is far from bland and has a distinct past of his own, particularly in his friendship with Floria Whitehand, Lightborn assassin and almost his polar opposite in terms of personality and motivation. I also loved the depiction of Telmaine and Balthasar’s relationship, since much of the ways they related to each other, from the casually exchanged affection to the absolute devotion to one another reminded me strongly of my own marriage.

Telmaine herself is possibly the most complex of the three, a subtle political game player, always aware of a woman’s reputation and social standing and able to use such to her advantage, yet someone with a conscious hatred of magic (including her own), a hatred which occasionally causes her to behave in less than pleasant ways, such as her cold treatment of Balthasar’s mage sister Olivete. Indeed, in many ways Telmaine reminded me heavily of Catelyn Stark.

Unfortunately, this complexity and time taken over characters does make the book have a slightly slow start, particularly since during Telmaine’s stint at the ball Sinclair takes time to introduce a number of players, using both Telmaine’s mage insights and political awareness to detail their characters and interests almost in the manner of a list of dramatis personae. This however is necessary, since later when things rather suddenly get to the point of excreter plus extractor and we don’t have time for long character introductions, Sinclair can just give us a detail or two so it’s easy to remember who is who as secondary characters rapidly take the stage. Indeed, to say that during the ball scene I was concerned I might get lost in convoluted politics, I was quite surprised how quickly I found myself thinking “Oh! That’s Telmaine’s bitchy sister,” or the like when said people showed up again.

In terms of events things certainly do get nasty, indeed I suspect in those reviews I’ve seen which criticise the book for lacking action people simply did not read far enough. Then again, as a certain Mr. Martin can attest to, politics is always more interesting when it comes with a side order of murder and mayhem and when it threatens characters we are attached to.

Speaking of threats, I particularly admired the way that Sinclair was able to have her characters react to threatening circumstances in a way which was extremely human, without being cliche. For example, when Balthasar is warned that his six year old daughter Florilinde will be brutally and slowly murdered unless he allows an innocent person to be convicted and executed, not only does Balthasar instantly capitulate, but Telmaine unreservedly supports him, and then, once the threat to Florilinde has passed, Balthasar goes straight back to working on the innocent’s behalf.

One other matter which might put some people off, is Sinclair’s writing style. Written in erudite, almost cold prose, perhaps influenced by 19th century literature, I will admit it took awhile for me to warm up to characters described so analytically, although as stated the sheer realism and vividness of the characters more than made up for their depiction. As a minor point, I also did find the rather large proportion of gendered descriptions a wee bit off putting, since I always find when authors start talking about someone making a “feminine gesture” or about someone’s “masculine face” as smacking a little too much of either romantic clichés or extreme beliefs about gender. Of course, Darkborn society is definitely not a gender equal one, and Telmaine makes it clear she’s well aware of a woman’s status and reputation in that society, though since the gendered language occurs in all three perspectives, and in situations not implicitly tied to social expectations, such as describing someone as “an effeminate man”, I am not sure to what extent this might just be Sinclair’s own concerns showing through and to what extent relating just to that world in particular.

Speaking of society, Sinclair’s world building presents some issues, since in some areas the details we learn are fascinatingly alien, in others they fall short.

All the Darkborn are inherently blind and navigate by a sonar sense known as Sonn. In Sonning, Sinclair falls badly into the common trap of creating blind characters (or in this case a whole blind society), then making them not blind at all. Most of the time, Sonning is simply seeing with a couple of letters difference, and though Sinclair is careful to avoid mentioning colour, she freely talks of facial expressions and even “visualising”.

Frustratingly, she does give a couple of indicators that Sonning is not seeing, for example noting that one person could sense when they were being Sonned by someone else, and that Sonning could be at different intensities with more intense Sonning being seen as quite rude, but she does not follow either the implications or experience of Sonning far enough.

This lack of willingness to explore her premise also creates a few inconsistencies, for example, while Sinclair represents Darkborn society not unlike 19th century England, with women’s modesty held in high regard, I found myself wondering why exactly women wore veils or lace dresses up to the throat which Sonn would go straight through rather than garments made of some Sonn proof material. Similarly, I’d love to know how a person using Sonn drives a horseless carriage or even lights a fire safely; fire not being bright enough to affect the Darkborn. Alison Sinclair does represent Darkborn writing as a dotted braille like system written with a stylus as braille was in earlier times, and on one occasion she mentions tactile art, but most of the time you might as well be reading a book about sighted people.

Sightlessness aside, Alison Sinclair still has some interesting parts of her world to explore. I particularly liked the idea of twinned houses, where darkborn and lightborn could interact through a paper and steel mesh lined wall and even pass objects across the divide, though I admit this is partly because Floria Whitehand, the book’s one Lightborn character is extremely engaging.

It was also fascinating to see a fantasy society who embraced technology and engineering up to the point of possessing steam trains and clockwork as a rejection of magic, especially because this apparently contrasts with the Lightborn who freely accept mages, indeed since the second book in the trilogy is entitled Lightborn and will apparently deal with matters on the other side of dawn, seeing how the two societies contrast is something I am quite looking forward to.

Sinclair’s handling of magic is also a little strange. On the one hand, the touch based magic that can sense thoughts and heal using the mage’s own lifeforce, especially with Darkborn society’s concern for modesty, was quite fascinating to see in action. On the other, once Telmaine finally started to use her magic matters became a little too easy, with Telmaine rather instantly becoming a magical powerhouse. Then again, since I was so invested in the characters at that point, I was more pleased that Telmaine got a moment of awesome and stopped some really bad stuff happening than I was irritated by the fact that the protagonist became effortlessly good at something she’d consciously rejected all her life.

Another matter I have seen commonly criticised in reviews, is the book’s ending. It is true that the book does not so much end as finish, not even ending on a cliffhanger, but simply breaking off in mid flow. I could see this as being frustrating from the perspective of someone working with the modern definition of “trilogy”, three stories, each with a beginning, middle and end, often separated from each other in time or space with an overarching plot. Sinclair however seems to have been using the word “trilogy” in its rather older sense, a single story which just happens to be split into three parts and published separately.

If you approach the ending with this in mind, and if you have the next two books readily to hand, you shouldn’t be disappointed, indeed if I hadn’t had to stop to write this review I likely would’ve picked Lightborn up literally the second I finished Darkborn.

My great love in fantasy is seeing human, flawed characters cope with an unknown and alien world. Even though the world of Darkborn isn’t quite as alien as it could be, in terms of having complex, likable characters thrown into circumstances they are totally unprepared for, and up against threats far stronger than they can deal with, Darkborn succeeds hands down. Any lovers of dark fantasy should definitely be at home, indeed I find myself a little confused at how many reviews call the book “romantic fantasy”, since even counting Ishmael and Telmaine’s mutual attraction or the deeply loving marriage of Balthasar and Telmaine, the only thing romantic here is the world’s resemblance to the nineteenth century Romantic period, and there is absolutely nothing fluffy here at all.

Now time for volume two!

This Darkborn book review was written by

All reviews for: Darkborn Trilogy

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