Darkborn is the first novel of a trilogy (I never would have thought I’d ever get nostalgic about these, but in this age of endless series it is quite refreshing to see someone still writing a trilogy) and it has one of the most unusal and fascinating settings I have encountered in recent years. Due to a curse whose specifics are never elucidated (but I expect the later volumes will shed some light on that) the realm the trilogy takes place in, or more precisely its inhabitants have been split apart – on the one hand there are the Darkborn who are blind and are burned by light, and the Lightborn to whom darkness is fatal.
As the novel’s title indicates, this part of the trilogy takes place among the Darkborn (although there is a minor character who is Lightborn and who will apparently play a larger role in the next volume), and in the way how carefully and thoroughly thought-out everything about them and their way of life is, you really notice that Allison Sinclair used to write Science Fiction. Unable to rely on sight, the Darkborn perceive the world by touch and smell, but most importantly by sound – like bats, they use echolocation to identify their surroundings and their own place relative to them. Unlike sight, it is not a passive process, but an active one, and it is also conscious, so that for a Darkborn, large parts of the world remain shrouded in shadow unless they specifically direct their attention towards them.
Allison Sinclair is very good at considering all the consequences of this, and of how the lack of sight would influence and shape a whole society of the blind, giving the impression of a world where everything connects to each other in a reasonable manner and the overall pictures makes sense. What she unfortunately is not quite so good at is in making this world come alive for the reader, or to be more precise, to rise to the peculiar esthetic challenge of making the reader feel what it might be like to live in constant darkness and perceive the world with the four remaining senses only. The problem here is not with world building (which really is admirable here), but with realising the world one has built, conjuring it for the reader so that it is not just mere statistics and an impressive concept but becomes something vivid and concrete that the reader can experience in reading the novel. Of course, it is still fiction, which is why I would like to call this effect “world conjuring” with quite intentional connations of a stage magician’s tricks. World Imagining is as much in need of this as is World Building, and it is really World Conjuring that turns either from idle daydreaming or mere doodling into literature. Therefore it stands to reason that when we’re dealing with a finished novel some kind of world conjuring will have been involved, but the degree of that involvement may vary greatly. (And before anyone asks – yes, I think you can have world conjuring without, or with only a very minimal degree of either world building or world imagining – just think of the umpteenth reiteration of Ye Olde Middle-European Medieval Fantasy Kingdom here.)
In Darkborn, then, to return to the ostensible subject of this post, there is not much emphasis on world conjuring at all, just the bare minimum to make us see the fundamental workings of this world and let us admire Alison Sinclair’s skill and thoroughness in building it – but does not really give any sense of what it is like to experience it. In all fairness it has to be said, though, that the author does not even try – she is much more interested in developing plot and character (this latter being very much the main emphasis of Darkborn) and so I’m critizising the novel for lack of something it did not even set out to do. Still, I think it would have made for a better book if its language had been more evocative of the world and of the particular way its inhabitants experience it.
But while Darkborn is not as brilliant as it might have been, it is still a very solid novel – its world is fascinating, its characters multi-faceted and while the plot is not exactly fast moving, it does develop an intriguing mystery that pulls the reader in and will have me turn towards the other novels in the trilogy before too long.