According to some fanboy friends of mine there's a striking visual motif to be found in the new G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra movie. "Did you know," said friends have told me in urgent asides, "that the bad ninja wears white and the good one wears black?" These revelations are invariably accompanied by misty eyes and shortness of breath—as any sign of intelligence in a movie based on a line of Hasbro toys should be. But knowing is half the battle: that visual switcheroo probably has more to do with a frustrated writer than any intentional irony. I'll wager my secret store of nanomites on it.
These days most writers tend to steer clear of such obvious delineations of good and evil. The days of satanic black knights, benevolent white-clad wizards or ironically pristine clerics with less-than-holy intentions (think Robert Jordan's fanatical Whitecloaks) are largely over. But the themes represented by such stark visual motifs, the clash of dark and light, as it were, continue as they always will, to obsess artists of all stripes. Accordingly, artists are continually tasked to find new ways of addressing these themes that won't simply rehash the same visual schemata. And writers must still engage readers in a sensory experience without making them feel that they've explored the same geography or met the same archetypes before.
Alison Sinclair's novel Darkborn concerns two races: the nocturnal Darkborn, to whom sunlight is lethal, and the Lightborn who have a similar problem with the dark. Cursed with these unique conditions centuries ago by a vengeful mage the two have learned to cohabit in the city of Minhorne, but they can never physically interact. Their lives are strictly regulated by the tolling of the bells for sunset and sunrise. Getting caught out-of-doors at the wrong time means certain death.
Right away you feel on familiar ground. A race that can't stand sunlight? Smells like vampires. A note in the author bio claiming the novel was inspired by Sinclair's "meditation on the light-dark motif as it is used in fantasy" isn't exactly. . . well, inspiring. I mean, haven't we been here before?
It turns out we haven't. There's not a pair of fangs to be found in Darkborn (at least, as this is the first book of a promised trilogy, not yet) and what seems like the set up for some grandiose battle between creatures of the dark and creatures of the daylight is instead a surprisingly intimate tale, visceral in its violence but domestic in its theme. In Sinclair's hands the light and dark motif becomes a tangible shaping force in the lives of her characters. As the sunrise and sunset bells toll throughout the novel we are continually reminded of the physical threat limiting the actions of these more-or-less ordinary human beings.
That bell is present in the novel's first scene, as Darkborn physician Balthazar Hearne opens his door to a renegade—and hugely pregnant—Darkborn aristocrat, Tercelle Amberly (Sinclair's milieu, populated by various doctors-scientists and arrogant aristocracy has a pleasant fin-de-siecle feel). It will soon be dawn and Tercelle must get inside or burn. Sinclair immediately hooks us with this physical threat—but though there will be violence and danger aplenty throughout the novel, she also manages to slyly insert the true core of the story right under our noses.
[Tercelle] was breathing hard. Like most women of the aristocracy, she was unfit for walking any distance, though she seemed unusually distressed. [Balthazar] wondered what had brought her here unaccompanied. It augered not well, for either of them. Her reputation would suffer, and his marriage, if gossip placed them together through the day. (p. 4)
It's telling that Balthazar thinks immediately of his reputation here. Though clothed in trappings of magic Darkborn is really a story of social mores and familial love. The characters are not only trapped by the limitations imposed upon them by the physical world, but by a strict social code. Indeed, even their one "supernatural" characteristic has a built-in form of etiquette. After centuries of living in the dark all Darkborn are physically blind. The "sonn" (or sonar) they have evolved allows them to see, but if you sonn someone too deeply you'll see them naked. This sets up the potential—often slyly hilarious—for all kinds of scandal. And scandal is something the Darkborn dread. So when Tercelle gives birth to bastard twins, somehow fathered by a lover who came to her during the day it's a tossup whether their illegitimacy or their unheard of ability (as purportedly Darkborn children) to see is the more explosive detail.
That concludes chapter one. Again, we think we know where Sinclair is going with all this—but the narrative then veers off to explore the predicament of Balthazar's wife Telmaine: society darling and secret mage. The Lightborn, it turns out, are more-or-less tolerant of magic, but the Darkborn consider it taboo. This is unfortunate, as Telmaine has been born with the ability to read thoughts through touch. She wears arm-length gloves in order to prevent any inadvertent contact and even Balthazar is oblivious to her secret. But when a grizzled "Shadowhunter" named Ishmael de Studeir crosses her path at a ball, not only does he suspect the truth about her, he seems to form an instant crush on her as well.
In Darkborn the clash of magic is secondary to the clash of human emotion. Telmaine and Balthazar are painted as a loving and committed couple (unlike many genre heroes they are also parents with actual children running underfoot) and so we want their happiness even as we find ourselves (much like Telmaine) won over by the charismatic Ishmael. Though it's hinted that the strange events at the opening of the novel are part of a plot involving the Shadowborn denizens of the mysterious Borderlands (which Ishmael patrols), Sinclair spends most of her time in the drawing rooms and at the sickbeds of her characters, exploring their evolution as lovers, mothers and human beings.
This is both a strength and a detriment. On one hand Telmaine, Ishamael and Balthazar are incredibly appealing protagonists. The secondary characters are likewise, well drawn (particularly Balthazar's Lightborn friend Floria Whitehand—who occupies the other side of a paper wall in Balthazar's "twinned" house but has never seen him in person). Yet for all their scrapes and struggles their knowledge of the sinister web into which they've strayed comes with an often painful slowness as their relationships take precedence over the larger plot. Given Sinclair's apparent fascination with "light and dark" I kept expecting something a little more operatic and just a titch less Austen-ish.
This is a world replete with magic, after all. Where even those who walk abroad in daylight are subject to a hideous curse. All the talk of the Borderlands in the second chapter seems to hint that we'll get there perhaps sooner than Sinclair wants to take us. And, while Sinclair excels at effective descriptions of violence (characters "writhe like a crushed worm" under torture, for example) their resulting convalescence (if they survive) gives us several long scenes of people in bed, drinking soup and trying to heal while outside their sitting rooms you sense a grand plot galloping by.
If this sounds impatient it's only because Sinclair has created a fascinating, fully realized world you itch to explore. As Telmaine and Balthazar hop a "day train" for an urgent journey to the countryside, or Ishmael recalls his misty nights patrolling the Borderlands, we want to keep moving along with them. And so perhaps that nagging feeling that the characters have barely begun to grasp the finer points of their situation is a welcome one. To satisfy it we will follow Sinclair into the dark, into the light or—as that burgeoning love triangle between Telmaine, Balthazar and Ishmael is still a-churning by novel's end—into whatever shades of gray she feels fit to present.
Hannah Strom-Martin lives and writes in California.