Like the legendary Scheherazade of the Arabian Nights, bestselling fantasy writer Holly Black has long enchanted children and young adults with her darkly fantastical tales about the Faerie realm. Now, with the sinister and shadowy Book of Night, she makes her adult debut, weaving an enthralling story about a con artist, ancient grimoires, and silhouettes having a life of their own, set against a seedy urban backdrop that is rife with treachery, blackmail, and crime.
The protagonist, Charlie Hall, is a girl with a blood-spattered past, struggling to learn from her mistakes and turn over a new leaf. She works as a bartender, employed by the dominatrix Odette, who is willing to look the other way as long as Charlie shows up for her shifts. Charlie hopes to gather enough funds so that her younger sister, Posey (who has a side-hustle conducting tarot readings for strangers) can eventually go to college. The two siblings share the rent for their run-down apartment with Charlie’s steady boyfriend Vince, who doesn’t have a shadow—but that’s not the most extraordinary thing about him, as the later chapters reveal.
Charlie’s life is hardly pleasant, but things go quickly downhill when she agrees to use her trickery and charm to track down Adam, a schoolmate’s missing partner. Soon, one of her customers is found dead in an alleyway, and she sees a terrifying shadow at the crime scene. Before she knows it, Charlie is embroiled in a conspiracy with a mysterious billionaire, Lionel Salt, at its centre who also happens to be a face from Charlie’s notorious past that she doesn’t wish to cross just yet.
The book’s fictional universe is founded upon the premise that human shadows have incredible power. Black draws upon the rich folklore surrounding witches’ familiars and homunculi to craft a world where humans can command their shadows to do their bidding. Thus, over the years, a whole shadow industry has sprung up. Celebrities can get their shadows altered for a price, to have wings or a horn which they can show off like a new tattoo or a cosmetic implant. These modifications might even give them a confidence boost, hone their talents, or manipulate emotions. Then, there are the puppeteers who send their shadows to carry out certain illicit tasks.
While still largely ignored by mainstream science, shadow work draws attention from fringe academics, scientists, and those fascinated by the occult. As a result, there’s even a black market dealing in the sale and exchange of old tomes, manuscripts, and grimoires, and a secret society to regulate the activities of the gloamists and other practitioners of shadow magic. Finally, there are the Blights—sentient shadows that have somehow detached themselves from the gloamist’s body (while living or dead)—and wander the city. They are said to be driven by hunger, hate, and other repressed instincts, a chilling metaphor for one’s worst demons literalized in the flesh.
The symbology of shadows thus plays a multilayered role in the text. On one hand, Black skillfully uses the age-old interplay of light and dark to engage with the subconscious, the conflicts, and divisive instincts in one’s self. But at the same time, shadows also serve as tools of deception, obfuscating the truth—a practice that Charlie as a con artist, as much as the wealthy gloamist shadow-manipulators, is already good at. Living in the shadows, our working-class protagonist struggles to make ends meet, even as the darkness offers a cover for her illegal activities. Finally, no matter how deplorable one’s shadow-self might be, it is still considered to be an integral aspect of one’s psyche. As such, losing one’s shadow is the considered the equivalent of losing one’s soul and living a half-life—the shadowless frequently receive sideways glances, yet those in dire poverty may sell their shadow for quick cash or risk their lives to steal a silhouette for the rich.
Black’s immersive urban fantasy brings to mind the genre of film noir, similarly characterized by games of shadows, tragic femmes fatales, and gripping mysteries that slowly unspool thick layers of crime and corruption in a city’s underbelly. Black updates this telltale world with urban legends, mysterious comments left on message boards, and other spooky elements. Initially reminiscent of Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series, Book of Night soon reveals its grittier side. As a novel intended for a mature audience, the text is peppered with references to self-harm, alcoholism, graphic violence, childhood trauma, and criminal activity which might make some readers uncomfortable but are crucial to setting up the book’s grimdark atmosphere, as well as for stacking up the odds against Charlie—who is already on a self-destructive spiral.
Throughout the novel, the third-person narration blames Charlie for constantly making bad decisions. As we follow her trying to dig herself out of the mess that she is in, we come across occasional flashbacks that detail her difficult childhood. Charlie grew up in a broken home, received a crash course in conning people from a family friend (who later gets murdered), and manipulated her own mother into leaving an abusive relationship by pretending to be a medium bearing “special” messages from the other side. In short, despite burning her fingers, Charlie continues to play with fire.
Yet, for all her flaws, Charlie is a trainwreck of a character for whom we feel sympathy, even as we are awestruck by some of her successful heists. Far from being perfect and relying on her wit and luck to survive, Charlie has understandably taken a cynical view of the world, is deeply suspicious of everyone (including her loving partner), and acts impulsively. For a con artist, she is rather convincingly written, as we watch her break into other people’s property, pick locks, steal valuables, and solve ciphers in real time, using her ingenuity and quick thinking. As a low-life con artist determined to get revenge on those that wronged her, Charlie shares similarities with Ren from The Mask of Mirrors by M. A. Carrick (2021), who is also pitted against an unjust and criminal world. She also reminded me a little of Alex Stern, the protagonist of Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House (2019), another adult novel by a veteran of young adult fiction written in a similar vein with a distinctive dark academia vibe—although I found the emotional payoff in Book of Night to be stronger.
In many ways, Charlie’s struggles, anxieties, and insecurities strongly resonate with millennial readers. Moving out of a toxic household to pursue an independent life in the big city, doing side hustles and odd jobs to pay the bills, microwaving leftover ramen at the end of a long day when one is too tired to cook, and drowning one’s sorrows in cheap alcohol or drugs to escape the weight of bad dating choices and even worse life decisions—these are all issues with which millennials frequently grapple. It isn’t uncommon for twenty-somethings to be seized by the crippling fear that their lives haven’t amounted to much, while their privileged peers appear to have made it big as per social media captions—which in turn makes Charlie’s hatred for the rich in their luxurious condos, and her own worries about the future (grounded in the very real threats of poverty and homelessness), all the more palpable. Deeply critical of our parents’ generation and determined not to repeat their mistakes, millennials often in fact end up recreating toxic patterns with their friends and partners, and Charlie is no exception. Thus, when Lionel Salt appears in her messed-up life, she realizes that, for once, she must confront the shadows of her past to build a happier and safer future.
However, Book of Night does feel more of a “young adult” novel than an “adult” novel. The novel is a fun, atmospheric, and engaging romp that will surely bewitch fantasy lovers—especially those who have grown up on young adult fiction—but it has some problems. For one, Salt is a rather one-dimensional villain—a typical, powerful white man who ruthlessly uses his money and privilege in different nefarious schemes, without the slightest compunction. There is also a hint of incest that is never fully addressed. With this setup, I was fairly certain that the climax might reveal some sordid family secrets (particularly involving Salt’s daughter, Adeline), like in Diane Setterfield’s gothic novel The Thirteenth Tale (2006), but instead, the finale was more straightforward. I anticipated most of Black’s twists, and while that certainly didn’t detract from my enjoyment, I did wish for a little more drama and complexity in the novel’s final chapters. There were also several formidable magicians introduced in the latter half of the book that I wanted to know more about. Finally, I found the first half (which slowly eases the reader into the intricacies of the shadowy world) to be more engaging and atmospheric than the second, in which the plot threads quickly and predictably come together and minor characters suddenly join the fray.
Black’s original magic system also raised some unsolved queries: if shadows were known to be powerful throughout history and across cultures, why are gloamists slowly gaining prominence only now? Shouldn’t more Blights be roaming around, along with stronger safeguards for them instead of some onyx daggers? Given the excellent and intricate worldbuilding to be found elsewhere in Book of Night, it would be interesting if Black chose to revisit this world in an anthology of short stories, examining different aspects of shadow magic in more detail, or focusing on Charlie’s earlier (and rather unbelievable) escapades that are only briefly referenced in the text.
Yet, despite these disappointments and even despite the darkness, the love story between Charlie and Vince, filled with moments of genuine warmth and tenderness, shone through and took me by surprise. For all her nihilism and disastrous luck with men, Charlie still believes in love and loyalty—and is ready to pay whatever the price for it. True to the novel’s tone, Black doesn’t grant her a fabled happily-ever-after, but a menacing compromise that leaves a few questions unanswered.
Thus, Black succeeds in nailing the gritty urban aesthetic and creating a believable millennial protagonist in Charlie, but it comes at the cost of leaving some supporting characters underdeveloped and a few sleights of hand exposed.