Cast even a cursory eye over medieval history, and you'll see that quite a lot of it consists of groups of armored people beating the hell out of each other; or, quite often, one heavily armored and armed group beating the hell out of a substantially smaller and less well-armed group before proceeding to take their land and turn them all into serfs. Later on, sometimes, there's an uprising against overwhelming odds, though it generally doesn't work, the odds being overwhelming and all.
Add in a little medieval sorcery, a bit of folk-magic, and a knight on a white horse (well, a horse, anyway), and you pretty much have the plot of Days Dark as Night, itself the result of a collaboration between two first-time fiction authors. Set in the fictional country of Adama, an island located somewhere off the northern coast of Europe, Days Dark as Night is the tale of the native inhabitants' revolt against an oppressive occupation from the mainland. Told chiefly from the perspective of Joet, a peasant girl with peculiar powers, and Simon, the aforementioned knight, the story follows the revolt from its beginnings with an incident in Joet's village, through to its conclusion. There's political and sorcerous derring-do, of course; questions of duty, honor, and what they mean when the source of one's authority is corrupt; rivalries between allies; and all of the other things that make stories like this so much fun.
Mostly, this is Joet's story. At the story's beginning, we learn that her mother was executed for witchcraft, and that Joet herself is gifted with strange powers. She doesn't fully understand these, of course, but they allow her to heal the illnesses of her fellow villagers in Wexen Cross, and even to accomplish tasks that the midwife cannot. It is not this, however, but her youth and beauty that bring her to the attention of the poorly disciplined local young nobility, with predictable results. This incident, as it turns out, is just the spark needed to ignite the entire country in civil war, with the Adami peasantry rebelling against the Lopathian nobility (like Adama, Lopathia is an imaginary place, though there were so many ephemeral kingdoms and shifting boundaries in medieval Europe that one can easily believe in both). Simon comes in when Joet and her grandfather are arrested as leaders of the rebellion; his conversation with them leads him to question the country's leadership and his own father's stiff-necked devotion to it. Meanwhile, a pair of brothers -- one a sorcerer, the other a soldier -- busily take advantage of the revolt and of the weakness of Adama's king to further their own goals. Their measures include the summoning of both a Dominican friar to root out heresy, and the kinds of spiritual entities familiar to anyone who's taken a casual glance at The Key of Solomon the King or its kin.
In a way, this last highlights one of the more peculiar aspects of this novel. The incantations used by Hubert de Vescey (most of the Lopathian names sound French; the Adami names are a mishmash of Saxon, Norse, and their relatives) read as though they're lifted straight from the book of Abramelin the Mage or similar. Joet's magic, in contrast, bears some resemblance to the folk-magic of Europe of the period, but not all that much; it gets all mixed up with stuff that looks more like modern Paganism, striking a jarring note in the narrative. Most of the extant accounts of charms and folk-magics from medieval Europe do not invoke concepts as abstract as the four elements modern Pagans swear by, instead referring to saints and pre-Christian deities, often within the same charm.
Likewise, the authors make frequent reference to history in their narrative, usually as part of the backstory of this character or that. The aforementioned Hubert, for instance, studied at the University of Paris, of which readers are treated to an entire brief history. Similarly, Joet and Simon, on their wanderings, run into a pair of Jewish wine merchants who happen to be among the first residents of Amsterdam, and there is much reference to religious doings across Europe, which have some bearing on the events in the story. It's not really enough, though, to justify the inclusion of historical snippets that read more like a medieval history text than a novel. The authors' writing style changes substantially for these mini-dumps of historical information, which adds to their jarring effect. Similarly disconcerting is the casting of the Adami rebellion as a nationalist uprising. Although popular rebellions were not unheard of during the period -- a good example is the Welsh rising led by Owain Glyndwr in the early 15th century -- to call them nationalist is to ascribe to them modern motivations. This is a fairly common problem with medieval fantasy, of course; it's difficult to work with a mindset so different from our own, and to maintain it in one's characters.
The characterizations in Days Dark as Night are probably its strongest suit. Joet is an appealing heroine, and if Simon's internal struggle between duty and his own personal sense of honor isn't exactly novel, Maidman and Tanner do make it believable. The protagonists' growing respect and admiration for one another throughout the novel ties into its theme of humanity's universal elements, those qualities that should be enough to bring peace between us, but all too frequently don't.
The trouble here is that despite this, the main characters are often passive. This may seem like a contentious word to apply, especially to Joet, who rises to become a Boudicca-like figure among her people, only with magical abilities as well. But aside from a few inspirational speeches, lessons to other similarly talented characters, and general descriptions of supportiveness, there is little evidence of actual leadership on her part, and few opportunities created for her to learn it. Granted, few such opportunities would have existed for a peasant woman in the Middle Ages, but as long as we're talking fiction, why not come up with something plausible, especially once she has a couple of knights on her side? In fact, it takes a secondary character -- the highly enjoyable William d'Ypres -- to really get the rebellion moving in both a real and a symbolic sense. He's also one of the few characters in the story with a functioning sense of humor, making him an even more welcome relief when he shows up. Many of the characters, regardless of whether they're Adami or Lopathian, peasant or noble, have a rather ponderous way of talking, and are given to repeating themselves. While this makes sense for some of them-particularly Simon's father, representative of the Duty side of Simon's internal struggle -- for others it merely adds unnecessary weight to a story already weighted by unnecessary detail.
On the other hand, there are times when the authors' penchant for heavy detail works in their favor. The battle scenes in particular are well rendered, an example of how to make research work: Maidman or Tanner or both have clearly studied a bit on medieval battles, strategy and tactics (such as they were at the time), and the result is well worth it. The battle scenes ring true, as do the political machinations, which are typical of a medieval kingdom suffering from civil unrest that the king is too weak to quell. (The king's weakness, unfortunately, is rather one-note; one keeps hoping to see him do something decisive, even if it's just ordering dinner.)
The most distracting thing here, however, is that this same use of detail at times becomes overwhelming. It can be tempting to put in too much information, out of the fear of having too little and the reader not understanding what's going on as a result. The danger, however, is that too much detail can be as obfuscatory as too little. The reader is asked to absorb so many minute details that they lose track of the story, and at times this is what happens in Days Dark as Night, slowing the story's pace to a near halt. Some judicious cutting here and there would probably help, along with fewer viewpoint characters; a few of them only have the viewpoint for a scene or two before they vanish from the story entirely. Sometimes because they've been killed, but at other times the authorial motivation is less clear. Multiple viewpoints, of course, are one of the best and most often-used ways of giving a story a grand scope, and when it's done right, the results are grand indeed: readers of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, for instance, will probably agree on this point (while champing at the bit in anticipation of the next book).
Tanner and Maidman don't succeed quite as well at this, though a bit more practice (i.e., more novels) would most certainly help. Days Dark as Night shows a great deal of potential; the authors have good eyes for a story. A smoother incorporation of their substantial historical research would be helpful as well, since this often sticks out. One is tempted to draw comparisons to Goldman's The Princess Bride, both for its use of imaginary kingdoms surrounded by a real Europe, and for its parenthetical notations of historical trivia. However, there are a couple of reasons why Goldman makes this work: for one thing, The Princess Bride has a strong comedic slant, and Goldman uses these elements to humorous ends. Days Dark as Night is not a comedy, and the inserted history consists at times of entire pages rather than paranthetical commentary, complete with dates, places, and prominent names. It's like suddenly finding an encyclopedic entry in the middle of a novel. While this is clearly intended to tie the imaginary kingdom of Adama into the whole of Europe, it frequently has the opposite effect, as the history of Adama as set down in the novel is somewhat vague by comparison.
Despite its flaws, Days Dark as Night is an entertaining read for readers who enjoy historical fantasy, especially on an epic level. The climactic battle -- this reviewer doubts that giving away this much of the novel's climax will spoil the surprise for anyone -- is quite satisfying, and does tie together the story's disparate elements that, up until that point, are rather disjointed. While Days Dark as Night is no classic, it is an enjoyable and mostly realistic rendition of the era.
Copyright © 2003 Genevieve Williams
Genevieve Williams is a carbon-based lifeform residing in the Pacific Northwest region of the continental United States. Writer, editor, and bookslinger extraordinaire, she's also a Clarion West 2002 graduate with a compulsive passion for the written word. Her previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive.