Book of Night
(Tor Books, 2022)
Patch of Thorns
I grew up reading a lot of fantasy and sci-fi where I’d often pretend I was the hero, somehow transcending (or denying) my own gender in order to center myself in the story. There were few if any inclusive voices back then, but I could imagine myself in Mordor or Earthsea, the Courts of Chaos, or riding dragons in Pern. As I grew older, I veered away from most fantasy into “literary” fiction, horror, and graphic novels, but when a friend gave me a collection of Angela Carter’s stories, I was thrilled to find not only great writing but girls and women at the center of their own stories. I wish I’d had Holly Black and A.G. (Angela) Slatter’s books to read when I was growing up. As it is, I’ve recently devoured nearly everything they’ve written. I’d finished my latest reread of Patricia McKillip’s work a while ago and stumbled across A.G. Slatter’s All the Murmuring Bones. It was brilliant—well written with compelling characters and a world that incorporated just enough of known mythologies and darker fairy tales to keep me reading. I went on to read everything Slatter has published, including the rollicking good fun “supernatural crime” novels featuring Verity Fassbinder, a hero(ine) solving mysteries and fighting crime. Slatter’s short story collections are set in a world that is both familiar and not, where women and girls suffer under oppressive patriarchal systems that are not too different from our own past (and future?) horrors. The women in Sourdough and Other Stories and Slatter’s other collections are the keepers of arcane knowledge, witches and healers, and women doing whatever it takes to survive if not necessarily thrive. In her new novel, The Path of Thorns, there are no heroes, there are only survivors. As Slatter has said herself, the novel pulls themes from Jane Eyre and Frankenstein while pushing back against the idea that men are the center of stories and that women’s narratives must always end with marriage and/or suffering. Certainly, there is suffering in great quantities for the women in The Path of Thorns, as is common in Slatter’s work: women suffer at the hands of other women, men, or because their world does not value them, their bodies, or their knowledge.
The novel begins as a young woman, Asher Todd, travels alone to take the position of governess to the three Morwood children. Their father, Luther, is an abusive drunk. Their mother, Jessamine, cowering and fragile. Once a force to be reckoned with, the matriarch Leonora Morwood is losing her eyesight and confined to her rooms in the Morwood mansion. When Asher arrives—in the midst of a classically gothic thunderstorm and pursued by an unknown beast—the family is in dire need of her direction. Asher soon begins teaching the children, and when she learns of Leonora’s condition, promises a cure. As the novel shifts between past and present, we learn that Asher is a young woman set on revenge and delivering a terrible promise she made to her dying mother Heloise.
Asher gradually reveals her secrets to us while she pries into the Morwood family history. We learn Asher’s mother Heloise was Luther’s sister and rightful heir to the Morwood estate. But Heloise was sent out into the world pregnant with Asher, banished from her home. Surviving with her wits and beauty, Heloise was often cruel to Asher, blaming her for their frequent poverty. Asher learned as a child that her mother’s love was conditional and unpredictable: “Once upon a time, there was a stupid little girl who thought if she could just try hard enough, her mother would be happy. Would be pleased. Would be good.” And when Heloise discovers that her daughter has a special gift for magic, Heloise begins to plan her revenge. But Heloise also warns her daughter to hide her gift because “those who are different are burned or drowned.” This is a world where women who stand out are punished, a world where past marvels created by women are cause for those same women to be burned by the Church as witches.
As in Slatter’s other work, there are fairytales woven throughout the novel, some familiar and some told askew, giving depth to the larger story. The Morwood children tell Asher a tale of “the wicked wolves of the wood” and how a good priest defeated them, saving the villagers. But the groundskeeper, Eli Bligh, suggests a different version saying there’s “no point in telling stories that make priests out to be heroes.” It’s no surprise when we learn that Asher’s father is the local priest—a terrible man who meets an equally terrible fate. Eli Bligh is elemental: a man/beast of the forest linked by blood to the original inhabitants of the estate. He and his cottage become a haven for Asher from the terrors of the Morwood home (a “house that eats secrets”) as well as a balance to Luther Morwood’s toxic masculinity. Luther is a brutal man and his brutality extends to the villagers—not merely fathering illegitimate children on willing (and unwilling) village girls but also refusing his duties as lord of the manor to provide appropriate care for the villagers. Through word of mouth, Asher quietly begins to treat their various maladies leading to a violent confrontation with Luther. As mystery piles on mystery (What happened to the previous governess? What illness is killing one of the village families?) Asher reminds herself, “Courage, Asher. There is no one else to have it for you.”
Asher is able to help Leonora regain her sight and Leonora reasserts her dominion over her son and his family. This seems positive at first but Leonora’s desire to regain her youthful looks leads her to make a terrible demand of Asher. Soon we learn not only what dark magic Asher is capable of but exactly what Heloise demanded Asher do for her. As Asher’s past, her lies and promises begin to pile up (along with the bodies), she dreams of escaping her mother and the Morwoods, “Just as I came to break this house, so too I’m breaking … I must leave before I’m entirely sundered.” In a heart-pounding climax, all of the lies and plotting come to the fore, dark secrets are revealed, and Asher’s story resolves in a non-traditional firestorm of an ending.
Holly Black states in the afterword to Book of Night that this is her debut adult novel. But Black’s previous YA novels are great reads, even for jaded grownups like me. Her stories of strong young women pushing back against oppression—whether from boys/men or the wicked folk of Faery, are compelling and entertaining. Book of Night isn’t set in the Faery realm but in a skewed version of the Pioneer Valley in Western Massachusetts. Charlie “Charlatan” Hall claims she’s been “crooked, from the day she was born. Never met a bad decision she wasn’t willing to double down on. Had fingers made for picking pockets, a tongue for lying, and a shriveled cherry pit for a heart.” But Charlie is a highly likable protagonist, and despite her own self-assessment, we learn that she (like Asher) has been shaped by a less-than-ideal mother: a woman so self-involved that she allows a shady con man to use a twelve-year old Charlie for his cons. That is, until the day he oversteps at the home of the wealthy and powerful Lionel Salt and comes to a violent end, young Charlie barely escaping with her life.
Charlie’s world is both familiar (bar jobs, boyfriends, rent, hangovers) and unfamiliar. In this world, people’s shadows are part of “shadow magic” where shadows can be altered to look like wings or cats but also used to intimidate others, to increase one’s own power. There is a market for stolen shadows and a powerful “cabal” that rules over shadow magic. Black does an excellent job of explaining this world—without breaking narrative pace with extended exposition—and we learn about power structures and shadow magic as the pace of Charlie’s life moves rapidly forward. “Alterationists” comprise one of the four shadow disciplines: they “cosmetically shape shadows, using them to trigger emotions so strong they could be addictive.” Work with shadow magic is “gloaming,” and the other disciplines include “carapaces focused on their own shadows” who can fly, “puppeteers” who send their shadows to do “the kind of foul shit no one wanted to talk about,” and “the masks…a bunch of creeps and mystics intent on unraveling the secrets of the universe, no matter who it hurt.” There are also “Blights”—shadows walking free after their “gloamist” has died.
Charlie’s boyfriend Vince has no shadow—he tells her it was stolen (a frequent occurrence in a world where shadows have power). Charlie’s younger sister, Posey, is obsessed with activating her own shadow—risking her health and sanity. When an acquaintance, Doreen, asks Charlie to find her missing partner Adam, Charlie starts a search that sets in motion a series of events reaching back to her own childhood trauma and involving all of the shadow magic elite in the Valley. At the bar where Charlie works, a “tweedy man” (Paul Ecco) is thrown out for trying to sell part of a mysterious book, the Liber Noctem, wanted by Lionel Salt. Later, walking home from work, Charlie sees Ecco’s body, “cracked open like a walnut” and nearby a man whose hands are “entirely made of shadow.” She makes it home, but the man with shadow hands will become a terrifying part of Charlie’s life as she begins her search for Adam and the book. Charlie is intrigued by the Liber Noctem, and although she’s sworn off her past of stealing and trading in rare books and objects wanted by gloamists, it turns out that Adam may have the book. Charlie is drawn back into her old life because “she might be able to have something she never thought she would—the satisfaction of taking something away from Lionel Salt.”
Shifting between past and present, we learn how Charlie became who she is and just what it was Lionel Salt did to her. And we begin to be suspicious of Vince and of everyone else in Charlie’s world. Although Charlie has a tattoo that reads “fear less,” we feel her fear and recklessness as she dives deeper into the Valley’s underground of shadow magic, learns what she believes to be Vince’s secret, and discovers that her own shadow is “quickening.” Charlie decides “If she couldn’t be responsible or careful or good or loved, if she was doomed to be a lit match, then [she] might as well go back to finding stuff to burn.” At a rapidly increasing pace, she does just that: setting in motion a complex plan that ultimately leads to a confrontation with the Cabal and Salt at his home and the revelation of many truths: including Vince’s identity and the importance of the Liber Noctem. Similar to the ending of The Path of Thorns, dark secrets are revealed and the shadow world implodes thanks to Charlie’s lit match.