A.F.E. Smith – Darkhaven

Cover_image_DARKHAVEN_AFE_SmithAyla Nightshade never wanted to rule Darkhaven. But her half-brother Myrren – true heir to the throne – hasn’t inherited their family gift, forcing her to take his place.

When this gift leads to Ayla being accused of killing her father, Myrren is the only one to believe her innocent. Does something more sinister than the power to shapeshift lie at the heart of the Nightshade family line?

Now on the run, Ayla must fight to clear her name if she is ever to wear the crown she never wanted and be allowed to return to the home she has always loved.

Sometimes I’m just drawn to a book by the cover. My inner fourteen-year old saw the cover for A.F.E. Smith’s Darkhaven and squeed. When the blurb for the book sounded great as well, it wasn’t difficult to choose to review this book. Secondary-world fantasy with a murder mystery? Sign me up. Happily, Darkhaven delivered on its promise in full. Smith’s debut novel reveals a great mystery set in a fabulous world. 

I enjoyed the world of Mirrorvale and its capital Arkannen. A huge city, Arkannen is structured in a very traditional way, with rings leading both inward and upward. The first ring contains the city’s poor and unwashed and those from outside of the city, while the seventh and top ring is Darkhaven, the home of Mirrorvale’s ruling family. This circular and tiered city planning isn’t particularly new or under-used, but it is a form I enjoy a lot and in the naming of the various quarters, rings, and gates, Smith manages to convey a lot about her world without going into info-dump mode. My one complaint would be that the world outside of Arkannen was somewhat foggy, especially since the action was almost completely limited to within city confines. The reader is told that the territories of Mirrorvale are vast and that there are countries surrounding the realm that oppose the Nightshade way of expanding their territories, but that is it.

Much of the narrative centres on the dynastic challenges of the Nightshade family. The Nightshades rule by dint of their magical nature. They are shape-changers and their bloodline is the only Changer bloodline in Mirrorvale. Because of the importance of the shape-changing ability to being able to rule it is imperative for the Nightshade bloodline to remain strong and due to the slow decline of family numbers what had been familial intermarriage has grown to mean marrying whoever is available and in this case that means that like the pharaohs of old, Ayla and Myrren are doomed to marry. It is an added conflict into what is already a complicated situation, given Myrren’s lack of the Nightshade gift and Ayla’s not being of pureblood, but being the only gifted Nightshade remaining. Yet it took me almost half the book before I realised that this was in play, since both Ayla and Myrren mostly avoid thinking about it. It is a future they both wish to avoid, yet it unites them in finding a better solution together instead of making them bitter rivals and enemies, an approach I appreciated.

The story is structured in two different story lines, both trying to solve the same murder but from different angles. They are told through the shifting perspectives of Ayla and Myrren Nightshade, a former member of the Helm, the Nightshades’ personal guards called Tomas Caraway and a priestess of the Flame named Serenna. Through them, we get a story told from the inside and the outside of Darkhaven and we get a remarkably well-rounded view of the situation and the narrative. There are three additional points of view interspersed in the story, yet to discuss these would possibly lead to spoilers, so I’ll leave them aside for the moment, other than saying they were very well done.

The four main point-of-view characters are paired off to work together early on in the novel and while their dynamics are quite different and the accents are coloured differently, they do echo each other in several ways, most notably in the romantic entanglements that occur. But they also mirror each other in the way that Myrren trusts Serenna from the start, where Ayla and Tomas have to build that trust between them. Because Ayla and Tomas have history together, the reason Tomas was ejected from among the ranks of the Helm, and Ayla has never forgiven him. I liked the way trust developed between them only after Ayla was able to forgive Tomas, when she realised that he hadn’t even forgiven himself. Their interactions were marvellous and while I really liked Myrren’s emotional arc, the scenes between Ayla and Tomas were most of my favourites in the book. Ayla is a complicated character, both entitled through her possession of the Nightshade name and gift, yet at the same time curiously naive and vulnerable because of it. Her fervent desire to just be loved and accepted by her father coupled with her fear of him, make it easy to identify and sympathise with her, even if she isn’t always kind.

Myrren on the other hand is kindness incarnate; despite being the despised son of a tyrannical father and having gone through every sort of abuse thinkable to trigger his gift, he still manages to see the good in the world and in people. Myrren isn’t just sympathetic, he’s lovable and I loved his development throughout the book. Myrren grows up and comes into his own, without ever losing that inner core of kindness that marked him from the start. His partnership with Serenna was entertaining to read and they made for a great sleuthing pair. Of the four protagonists, Serenna was the one who remained the least well-developed. Not that she was flat or uninteresting, quite the opposite, but her longterm arc remained somewhat nebulous until the end of the book and it’ll be interesting to how she develops in the next book.

The mystery at the heart of Darkhaven — who killed Florentyn Nightshade? — was an interesting one and the investigations into its particulars were exciting and clever. The eventual denouement of the novel, after several heart-stopping twists, was spectacular. I had a brilliant time with Darkhaven and I can’t wait for the sequel. With her debut A.F.E. Smith has delivered a wonderful fantasy tale, one filled with heart and if you like your fantasy laced with a good mystery, Darkhaven is definitely a book to check out.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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