Dark Rise by C. S. Pacat. Quill Tree Books, HarperCollins, 2021. 9780062946140
Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 3.5
What did you like about the book? First in a new YA series by best-selling genderqueer adult novelist C.S. Pacat, who is apparently very popular with grown-up fantasy fans. This book reads like a re-telling of Lord of the Rings/Dune/Star Wars/Eragon/etc., with many of the same tropes: a world divided between Darkness and Light, an untested savior, a perilous journey against the merciless forces of evil. Here it’s Will, a young orphan on the run from Simon, who is attempting to resurrect the Dark Lord and sweep away all that is good in early 19th century London. On the side of light, we have the Stewards, an ancient order of knights who forswear all earthly rewards to safeguard humanity. After being captured by Simon, Will is rescued from a sinking ship by Violet, a half-Indian and half-English girl with super strength, born a Lion. Lions are currently on Simon’s side, but Violet chooses nobility and sacrifice instead of greed. Both Will and Violet are outsiders and thus regarded with suspicion by the Stewards, with their mysterious Keep and hoard of secret magical artifacts. But once Simon starts his slaughter, they are the only ones left who can take up the challenge.
Although Dark Rise started slowly, the action heated up after the first 100 pages and definitely kept me guessing. I found the character development thin (we can only hope Pacat reveals more in subsequent installments), but the settings and descriptions were vivid and the author handled the long passages of dialogue with ease. Secondary characters added interest: there’s James, reborn from the dead and definitely stirring something in Will, Cyprian, a Lancelot-type Steward, and Devon, a mysterious clerk in the ivory trade who harbors a gruesome secret. It’s unusual to find a fantasy novel focused on a male character and I found that an appealing counterbalance to the many girl-centered series on my shelves. A very beautiful, intricate map of 1821 London decorates the end papers.
Anything you didn’t like about it? The plot was a bit bloated for my taste. So many magical objects with complicated origin stories! Similarly, the warring factions and elaborate subterfuges required very close reading, although these may not bother the target audience. Spoiler alert: almost everyone dies and not by peaceful means. Readers should know that there is a lot of gruesome carnage in the book. Pacat also creates a kinky, slightly S/M vibe between Will and James, which really seemed to belong in an adult novel. I did find Violet’s ethnicity and that of a Chinese Steward named Justice a bit token-y; their Asian origins never merit serious exploration. All the other characters cue as White.
To whom would you recommend this book? Although the Will pictured on the cover looks to be 10-12, he’s actually 17 in the book and as my review indicates, it’s a book for older teens or adult YA readers. Readers who loved V. E. Schwab’s Darker Shade of Magic series would be a natural audience.
Who should buy this book? High school and public libraries
Where would you shelve it? YA fiction, fantasy if you genre-fy
Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? No
Reviewer: Susan Harari, Keefe Library, Boston Latin School, Boston, MA
Date of review: November 13, 2021