Review of Darkling

Darkling by Brooklyn Ray. Nine Star Press. 2018.

4 stars

darkling

This gorgeously written novella feels less like a romance at the center and more like a layered identity/coming out story for the MC, Ryder. There is a central friends to lovers m/m romance arc, but at its core, this is Ryder’s story, about him coming to terms with his identities as a witch, about the way magic moves and shapes things for him, and about him coming out about his magical heritage and the shape his magic will take in the future. The romance sort of gets swept along in the blaze of all the angst and confusion and the explosion of Ryder’s secrets.

I loved the way the magical elements of the story flowed and unfolded. This is the kind of thing I often struggle to follow in stories that have unfamiliar magical systems, especially when they begin en media res and expect me to follow along and catch up, like this one did. It worked for me, and I think part of the reason it did is that this is a book about witches written by a witch, and it conceived of magic in ways that resonated for me because of that. It made for something homey for me in the story; other wiccan and pagan reviewers have mentioned having similar reading experiences, so I know I’m not alone there. I loved all the different animal familiars, they made me smile. Darkling is, without a doubt, one of my favorite witch stories that I’ve ever read.

At it’s core, this is a book about Ryders journey toward self acceptance of his magical heritage and the direction of his magic, both of which he’s been keeping secret, along with his transness and his feelings for his friend Liam, who is also in his circle. Ryder resists claiming his magical identity and heritage, and those kinds of stories are deeply compelling to me. He is conflicted and afraid: of himself, of what it might mean, of how it might ripple out, of being vulnerable, of being seen for who he is, of harming someone by accident. This depiction of struggles in claiming spiritual identity resonated for me; it felt like real and full and nuanced representation. Not just around claiming spiritual identity, either; as someone who has been both in a newly claimed identity that I’d worked hard to mask for years and can no longer mask, and a place of questioning another identity recently, Ryder’s struggles around being a darkling felt very familiar as an identity struggle across the board, and I can see them resonating for other readers in similar ways.

I want to note that I was pretty sure a number of the characters in the story were people of color, but it was not completely clear beyond references to skin color. There was one troubling exception: a clearly marked Asian American secondary character is presented as a prejudiced traditionalist, and is the closest thing the story has to an antagonist. This was discussed in another review, and I wanted to mention it specifically.

In the story, all of Ryders secrets are wrapped up together, and I want to talk abut that for a bit. The intertwined nature of all these secrets, none of which he actively chooses to reveal to his circle, was complex and fraught for me. Ryder gets warned early in the story, that secrets inevitably come out, and he ignores the warning. Of course then his secrets do come out, from his magical identity, to his transness, to his feelings for Liam. I was uncomfortable with this aspect of the story, in the early chapters of it. Partly because this is one of the ways it’s implied that he is trans before the reader is told that he is trans. This is a tremendously common trope around transness; it’s almost always framed as a secret that gets out, usually in a surprise reveal to cis characters, without the trans character’s consent. The cis characters generally react quite badly and get very upset, reject the trans character.

So, I was worried about this secret thing, as it was clearly both a hint and a foreshadowing. Soon afterwards we get our first clear reference to Ryder’s transness, when his top surgery scars are referenced. His trans identity becomes crystal clear when his sister (who he hasn’t seen in a long time) asks him about his t shots and discusses his surgery recovery with him. This conversation felt awkward, but not in an unrealistic way. In that way that cis folks who don’t know how to talk about transness but want to be supportive sometimes talk to trans people. Two characters in the book find out that he is trans, via him being partially clothed, or during sex. That bugged me some; I wanted Ryder to choose the words to tell people, and both naked and sexual reveals are a longstanding harmful trope in translit. The characters barely react, beyond a bit of curiosity about his top surgery scars; that’s not usually how it goes with the surprise reveal trope I’m referring to.

What is interesting about the surprise reveal aspect of this story, is that it’s his magical identity that actually mirrors the usual trope around surprise reveals of transness. That’s the one that gets the huge negative reaction. That’s the one that he is agonizing over people finding out, and feels helpless and upset and scared when they do. That’s the driver of the story, and everyone’s actions. The disclosure of his transness, while still having some of those elements going on, gets no fanfare or huge reaction, and really kind of gets washed away in the wake of the magical identity reveal. It barely gets any attention. I’m interested by this choice to play with these tropes in this particular way. I’m not sure its as effective as I’d want it to be, and I was still bugged by the naked and sexual elements of the reveals, but in the end it wasn’t nearly as upsetting for me as a trans reader as those things usually are, because of the way the narrative is clearly focused on a different identity reveal and doesn’t treat his transness like a big deal.

There is a minor character in the story who is non-binary, and I liked reading Ryder’s brief interaction with them. I’m hoping to see more of them in book two. It’s lovely when trans and/or non-binary characters are not all alone in a cis world surrounded by cis people, and even this small moment was important to me as a non-binary trans reader, both to see a character who also uses my pronouns, and for Ryder to not be alone, surrounded only by cis people.

Liam and Ryder have glorious chemistry, and there’s this lusciousness about them just being in the same room together, especially after they are tethered. It made for extremely hot magical energy exchanges that felt beautifully kinky to me, and that included some delicious moments of blood exchange that I deeply enjoyed (and I’m someone who loves blood sports so I’m a bit picky about such things). The sex scenes were gorgeous; hot, magical whirlwinds of intensity that were exactly right for the characters and the story, and were also deeply romantic. I loved these aspects of the story, and would name the sex in this book some of the best sex scenes I’ve read in a romance involving a trans MC. For this aspect of the story alone, this book is worth a read. (Good rep of this sort is difficult to come by, in my experience.)

As I mentioned before, the romance takes a bit of a back seat to the magical identity plot. There are still some lovely moments of yearning, really sweet awkwardness as they try to figure out what the other feels and wants, beautifully swoony (and very hot) kisses, and gorgeous sex scenes. I was rooting for them as a couple the whole time, and really appreciated the way Liam sees and holds all of Ryder and has his back without question. It’s just that the magical whirlwind drives the plot, not the romance arc, which I think made the romance a bit thin in places. In particular, the happy ending felt a bit rushed. I’m glad the next book centers Liam, because we will hopefully get to see them together more as a couple.

The prose in this story is beautiful, the plot is compelling, the characters are engaging and complex, the sex scenes are intensely hot. The romance got a bit of a short shrift, which made it feel a bit rushed, but I didn’t mind that much because I was completely enthralled by the magic-centered plot. I am excited to read the next book in the series and to read more by this author.

Representation

  • Queer trans man witch MC
  • Queer man witch MC
  • Queer POC woman secondary character
  • Queer woman secondary character
  • Asian American queer man secondary character
  • Queer man secondary character
  • Enby secondary character
  • Non-binary queer witch author

Content Warnings (in white, highlight to read)

Sex on the page, including sex in a public place. Blood sports as part of magic and sex. Ritual including death of both a human being and an animal, who are brought back to life. Character motivation driven by risk of harming others. Threat of rejection for magic and heritage. Casual ableist language. Reveal of a characters transness via nakedness and sex.

Disclosures

  • Source of the book: ARC from the publisher via Netgalley
  • I have had no contact with the author.

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