Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Microreview [book]: Dark Rise by C.S. Pacat

Dark Rise brings some shades of grey to a classic tale of Light vs Dark.

Cover art by Magdalena Pagowska, @lenyan_art

In 1821 London, a teenage boy called Will is on the run from the nobleman who killed his mother. When he is finally captured, he discovers a magical dimension to the world he never knew: a world which, as the last of his bloodline, he may be destined to save from the return of the Dark King.

If this sounds familiar to you, it's not surprising; Dark Rise is a book that proudly shows its influences. The title itself harks back to The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, and the story plays with many of the same elements. However, while Pacat very clearly intends Dark Rise as a homage, this is also not an uncomplicated tale of Light vs Dark. Some clever changes have been made to introduce some shades of grey and also to appeal to a more modern audience.

Starting with the protagonist Will. At first glance, he seems very similar to Cooper's version: of humble background, he's the sole descendant of the forces of Light that at great cost (mostly) defeated the Dark in an age long passed. Ignorant of his heritage, he meets with the last remnant of those forces of Light who reveal to him the true magic of the world.

But that is largely where the similarities end. In keeping with a darker, more mature tone, he has been aged up from eleven to seventeen. Instead of the cliched farm boy, Will has had to fend for himself on the streets of London after the death of his mother and has wound up as a dockworker. And while he experiences some intuitive flashes of knowledge, for much of the novel he struggles to access his power, let alone master it. Nevertheless, he continues to present much as one expects of a scion of light: a hard worker with a strong sense of justice and a deep loyalty to his friends.

Which brings us to the second of the main characters. Violet is the bastard daughter of an Englishman, who returned home to his family from India with her in tow. While she and her father's wife barely tolerate each other, Violet looks up to her half-brother. However, Violet remains somewhat naive and at first she doesn't fully understand the character of the nobleman her brother serves. She soon finds out when the ship they're on board is attacked at the docks. At her brother's behest, Violet goes into the hold to defend the ship's cargo, only to discover that cargo is Will.

If you're looking for a kickass female character, Violet's your girl. Not only is she unusually fast and strong, but she is a stalwart friend and stands up for what is right, even when it costs her dearly. The friendship between her and Will was one of the story's strong points for me, particularly since it remained platonic (although both of them have romantic interests of varying degrees elsewhere).

The influences Dark Rise draws upon have by-and-large been predominantly white and heteronormative, things in which Pacat's work has never particularly been interested. Dark Rise is no exception on that front, leading with a diverse cast; Will is bisexual and Violet is far from the only character of colour.

Speaking of white, heteronormative influences, fans will also note some strong Lord of the Rings overtones in some of the set pieces. There is even an equivalent to the One Ring, complete with its Gollum-like keeper.

Perhaps the problem with being a homage to such iconic works of fantasy is that it leaves things feeling a bit generic. Although it's nominally a historic fantasy, any sense of it being set in a distinct time period fades very quickly after the opening.

Pacat's debut novel, Captive Prince, was relatively ground-breaking when it was first released (Australian mainstream publishers putting out previously self-published serial works is still relatively uncommon; explicit m/m romance combined with magic-free fantasy is just about unheard of). But despite the fervour of Pacat's fans, Dark Rise does not hit the same bar for significance. It's a work more in line with Pacat's more recent project. The graphic novel series Fence squeezes in as many sports anime tropes as it can, weaving them into an entertaining, familiar story. Like Fence, Dark Rise is an exploration of core genre tropes.

Even the twist, when it comes, ends up feeling relatively predictable to readers familiar with modern, darker works of YA speculative fiction. Being most familiar with the Australian YA (and YA-adjacent) scene, I found myself particularly thinking of  the work of Jay Kristoff (who, I note, was thanked in the acknowledgements). It remains to be seen whether Dark Rise's twist is merely for the sake of edginess, as it so often feels in Kristoff's work. However, given the careful thought Pacat put into subverting other tropes along the way, I'm optimistic that this is building towards something meaningful.

Its predictability doesn't make for an unengaging read, however. The characters are sympathetic and the plot, while perhaps a touch slow in the middle, feels suitably epic. The twist was carefully foreshadowed and is the sort of thing that will reward rereading. While I can see some flaws, I enjoyed the book immensely.

The Math

Baseline score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for the nods to classic fantasy, +1 for the carefully foreshadowed twist.

Penalties:  -1 for its generic predictability.

Nerd coefficient:  8/10

References: Pacat, C.S. Dark Rise (Allen & Unwin, 2021)

Cooper, Susan. The Dark is Rising (Macmillan, 1973)

Pacat, C.S. Captive Prince (Penguin Random House, 2015)

Pacat, C.S. & the Mad, Joanna. Fence, Vol. 1 (Boom! Box, 2018)

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring (Allen and Unwin, 1954)

POSTED BY: Elizabeth Fitzgerald, a writer, binge reader, tabletop gamer & tea addict. @elizabeth_fitz