“Wings of Ebony” A Promising Idea That Can’t Take Flight

You’ve likely heard a story with the makings of Wings of Ebony before: girl has hidden godly and/or magical heritage, crisis sends her past careening into the present, magical world welcomes her with varying degrees of open arms, all is not what it seems. A setup like this is a perennial refrain in young adult fantasy lit for a reason, however, and J. Elle’s entry into the archetype manages to stand out amongst a flock of look-alikes, even considering its shortcomings.

For one thing, even though the archetype offers a powerful temptation to turn to wish fulfillment instead of truly interrogating the flaws of one’s fantasy world, Wings of Ebony keeps its eyes turned on inequity, both in Ghizon, the fantasy setting where our heroine, Rue, discovers her powers, and in her home neighborhood of East Row, in Houston, where unsettling connections exist between a recent uptick in violent crime and Ghizon’s seedy inner circle.

In fact, we return home in Wings of Ebony more than you might expect, and it’s a refreshing change of pace in a genre where the prerogative is often to escape the sorrows of our contemporary world instead of facing them. But J. Elle makes an admirable point of emphasizing the fact that the “real world” is not all sorrow and its magical counterpart not all wonder.

Rue, informed by her experiences as a Black girl in an under-served community, certainly knows hardship, but the book also pays credit to that community and its value. In fact, it offers as its central tenet the necessity of defending such a community, with the defining feature of its antagonist being a refusal to acknowledge it for its worth.

That much remains to the book’s merit, but some issues in execution bar it from making the most of its brilliant setup. First and foremost, it makes the mistake of focusing Rue’s character on unwavering conviction as opposed to substantial development. It’s not that Rue goes from the first page to the last with all her attitudes about Ghizon, her family, and her past completely unchanged, but it’s only those attitudes that change.

Rue starts the book, for instance, with a deep resentment of Ghizon, and by extension, her father, who left her as a child to return there, and comes to care about her heritage more when she learns its history and her place in it. No essential thing about her, though, responds to the circumstances in kind. She gets superficially stronger, as she gets a better grip on her powers, but because the groundwork isn’t there, her victory has thematic rather than personal significance. Armed with the same tools and information, she would’ve managed the same feat and acted in the same interest on page one.

This is one area where Wings of Ebony might have actually benefited from taking the ordinary fantasy path, specifically where it pertains to deepening the relationship between Rue and the magic she learns to wield. Elle makes a bold choice in setting the novel not right when Rue is whisked away to Ghizon, but in the months after, showing her first interactions with magic (and the accompanying training) only in flashback. In many ways, it’s a choice that serves the trajectory of the story and saves it valuable page time in skipping the magic-school formalities. But the book does lose something in neglecting to show Rue in the process of learning the ropes, especially where that ever-important character engine of failure is concerned. Having a character contend with the magic they’ve been alienated from all their life and hit a wall in the process is often the primary ingredient in turning a finale into a triumph––and its absence in Wings of Ebony removes suspense to its detriment.

Here, as foreshadowing for a second-act revelation, we get one brief scene of Rue trying the magic for the first time and discovering that she’s preternaturally good at it. The scene in question has multiple important thrusts––one even subtly interrogates Rue’s Ghizoni friend, Bri, and her immediately suspicious response to Rue’s talent as a product of racism––but it fails as a tool for enlivening Rue’s bond with her magic.

What’s more, that same second-act revelation makes way for everything Rue knows about Ghizon, including its magic, to be challenged, but even after the other shoe drops, the book still denies her the chance at growth through trial and error. Even when the magic is directly out of reach, only external forces prevent Rue from using it, facing her with an immediate limitation, and not a loss that has anything to say about Rue’s flaws or failing strategies. It’s an opportunity eschewed, in other words, and it’s a big part of the reason the third act falls flat.

The other major factor is the antagonist, who stays concealed until about halfway through the book, but once revealed loses all intrigue. Elle’s worldbuilding keys very skillfully into a hunger in contemporary fantasy for magical institutions established under false pretenses, and though that goal is obvious from the beginning, it’s still satisfying to watch the truth come to light, but in crafting the antagonist, she falls on the easiest, least challenging option––that goes both for the premise of the character, and for their simple, straightforward defeat.

In fact, the central conflict at large feels like a betrayal of the book’s complex aims. Instead of leaning into the systemic nature of Ghizon’s abuses, the book pins it all on a few authority figures our heroine has only to defeat to resolve. While it is made clear at the ending that there’s a substantial amount of work ahead for Ghizon, it’s still frustrating that the text chooses to rest injustice on a few bad actors in the end where it’s otherwise abundantly clear that widespread complicity is its primary enabler.

Wings of Ebony opts for the fast and easy ending, ultimately, where the slow and arduous is more suited to the occasion: in character, in magic, and in conflict. Because these areas are so crucial, the work as a whole misses the mark, despite its noble goals. There is much within it to be exited about, of course, but one can’t help but wish for more.

“Rule of Wolves” a Tepid Finale With Too-Easy Answers

The Grishaverse, fantasy author Leigh Bardugo’s expansive, multi-series magical work, is fast becoming too unwieldy to pitch in one sentence. Rule of Wolves, its most recent installment, is six books in the making and the sequel to King of Scars, a spinoff that follows the young and unready King of Ravka, Nikolai Lantsov, as his country heals from a grueling civil war and faces threats in the meantime from its richer and more powerful neighbors.

He’s not the only perspective character, though: joining him is Nina Zenik, a Ravkan spy on a mission in Fjerda, one of Ravka’s major aggressors, and Zoya Nazyalensky, a general of Ravka’s magical second army.

As the second book in a duology, Rule of Wolves opens with a lot hanging in the balance: there’s a major complication that dropped on the final page of book one, two potential wars brewing at Ravka’s borders, a subplot involving a mysterious blight of magical origin, and a pair of budding un-confessed romances, all to be put to rest between these covers.

It is with a heavy heart that I say it should be no surprise that Rule of Wolves suffers under these tall orders. Two books, hefty as they may be for the Young Adult category, just aren’t up to the task of supporting three, sometimes five, completely separate plots of the scope Bardugo is attempting here.

Six of Crows, another recent entry in Bardugo’s fantasy universe, also happens to follow multiple characters at once, but in all else, it’s a striking example of restraint––and that same restraint paying off. All the characters in Six of Crows are working towards the same goal, and, crucially, its scale suits a duology. Never do our perspective paths fully diverge, nor do our characters set in motion the stuff of multi-book sagas with only a few hundred pages left to go. Six of Crows is such an achievement because it strikes a balance: ambitious but controlled, bombastic yet considerate.

The worst part about Six of Crows‘ achievement, though, it that it almost makes you think Bardugo can manage it here. When you see her put another plot twist into play, you think of the surgical precision of the ones in her striking pair of heists. When you watch her break her magic system’s rules, you think of how well it worked to raise the stakes before. When she makes impossible promises, ultimately, you trust her, because she has a history of seeing them through with a stunning finish.

I remember, with some foreboding, now, that King of Scars read like the first volume in a long line of doorstoppers––it teased problems that couldn’t be solved by putting a magical macguffin in the right place, hinting at long and complicated conflicts beyond our characters’ shores. It was a tantalizing first glimpse, but of a delivery in all-out war with its package. Simply put, King of Scars is a check Rule of Wolves can’t cash. In fact, it’s a check no book can cash, at least not with these constraints, as evidenced by the bitter sting of a compelling setup clipped with an ending before it’s ripe.

To help illustrate how this book suffers for want of time, it might be helpful to look to one particular incident near the third act, where Zoya, Nikolai, and a small crew take a detour to the city of Ketterdam for the supply of titanium they need to make a working missile––the iffy diplomatic implications of stealing what they need and the obvious barrier of security standing in their way. The whole thing plays out over a few chapters, rendering what might have been a significant challenge a trivial fetch quest.

In its defense, the sequence’s primary accomplishment is in a major thrust of character work, which some of the best scenes in Rule of Wolves are often aiming for first, but the simple fact is that a collection of touching vignettes does not a sturdy novel make, and I worry that this detour’s place in the story rests more on a few cameos than actual narrative necessity.

Rule of Wolves has the decency to avoid making such callbacks and cameos gratuitous and all-encompassing, but in the face of what this new series could’ve become with page time adequate for its expansive ambitions, or at least some of the restraint that so served Six of Crows, it’s worth asking if King of Scars and Rule of Wolves lost something in refusing to cut ties with the past and move on.

To be perfectly frank, there’s a tragedy in these pages that has nothing to do with the hasty resolutions of a hungry brood of subplots––it’s in the fact that this book refuses to allow its new story to stand alone, apart from old favorites and plot threads long concluded. At every turn, there’s a harder, riskier, more compelling choice to be made, but sheltering in the laurels of its predecessors is a scurrying shell of a book without the freedom or courage to make them.

As dismal as it sounds, it’s an issue that is, at its heart, rather simple. In trying to balance the successes of the first series, which begins with Shadow and Bone, with those of Six of Crows, its follow-up, the King of Scars duology loses purchase on its clarity, for a messy fusing of disparate parts. Shadow and Bone is straightforward and archetypal, Six of Crows more gritty and complex. Resolutions that would fly in one realm feel like cop-outs in the other. And instead of committing to either, Rule of Wolves so badly wants the benefits of both that it strains itself to bridge them, and in the process, forfeits an identity of its own.

The price, in the end, is that these most recent books will forever be subsumed by their forebears, and always in want of a distinctive voice that could’ve been theirs, with only a touch more magic.

Marissa Meyer’s “Heartless” Is Fun, But It Ultimately Misses the Mark.

For Marissa Meyer’s Queen of Hearts origin story, Wicked, the Gregory Maguire novel-turned wildly popular musical, is an obvious influence. What if the Queen of Hearts was once a teenage girl who wanted nothing to do with the crown, Meyer’s tale asks, with the catchy edge of an “I want” song looming around the corner. Catherine, a Marquess’ daughter looking down the barrel of an unwelcome marriage proposal, wants a bakery. And a love interest her parents most definitely wouldn’t approve of. And we’re off!

Meyer, ever the fairy tale enthusiast (she’s best known for her sci-fi Cinderella retelling, Cinder), has a ball reworking the absurdity in the original Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland into a framework more befitting a modern fantasy novel. She keeps the oddities and lets them run wild, but tempers them with a foundation of quest-friendly magical logic underneath. Wonderland still has much to offer those who take it just seriously enough: though Meyer’s take isn’t quite as morbid as the one in the 2010 Tim Burton film (which I seem to be citing often these days), it takes after it in the delicate balance of strangeness and tragedy. By knowing exactly when to play things straight, Heartless can frolic with the tea partiers one moment and reel from a wrenching loss the next––and rarely find itself missing the mark in tone.

Its greatest virtue is in falling back on sincerity, a lesson well-learned in the way Cinder and its sequels burst with wide-eyed joy, and put to good use here. Whatever the consequences (the book is a bit unkind to a few side characters, for instance), Heartless follows its heroine with tireless conviction, grieving when Catherine grieves and judging where she judges, even if it’s overblown; even if the reader can see right through it.

Some care might have been taken, though, in the way Meyer depicts the King of Hearts, Catherine’s unwanted suitor. He’s extremely short in stature in almost all his appearances in modern retellings, shown as squat and a little over half Catherine’s size in Heartless. Going this route isn’t a mistake in itself, but the book wades into messy territory in emphasizing this when it wants to convince us how unattractive he is. In the same way making Queen Levana’s disfigurement a factor in her villainy is a mistake in Cinder, using the King of Hearts’ stature like this is a mistake here. If Meyer planned to go this route in crafting him, she would’ve done well to avoid showing Catherine being openly repulsed at something a reader could reasonably recognize as a real-life disability.

As far as suitors go, Meyer makes a solid but not illuminating mark with the King’s foil, Jest, a court joker who’s more than meets the eye. When he’s not angst-ing over the impossibility of sharing a life with Catherine, he’s interesting enough to watch to keep the pages turning, but underneath, there’s a real dearth of substance. The love story in Heartless, in a searingly tragic turn of events, in other words, hits the same walls that Wicked‘s does––you know: the one between Elphaba and what’s-his-name.

There are bigger pitfalls looming in the offing, though, as Heartless dwindles to its last line. For one thing, Catherine is as different from the Queen of Hearts as they come, but all this serves to do is make the eventual transformation more jarring. Heartless opens on a surprising Point A, introducing us to the young Queen of Hearts as a teenage girl with no royal ambitions, a love of baking, and only the slightest hint of her future tendencies, but from that vantage point, the tragedy about to befall her has no central weakness as a sticking point.

In lieu of this, Meyer’s forced to dish up a series of heartbreaks that, in tandem, are supposed to amount to that fateful day-to-night switch, but ultimately feel more incidental than truly ordained. They don’t reflect on Catherine: they reflect on the her rigid station in Wonderland. Something like this can be a moving tragedy in its own right––but it doesn’t produce the conclusion Meyer is aiming for. Approaching Heartless as a reader, I wanted to watch the making of a villain, but all I got was a hero who breaks spontaneously after an incident of misfortune.

There’s one moment, in the middle of Act III, that, with some tweaks, might have better sealed the deal than most of what the actual conclusion has to offer, but you can almost see the author’s hand shrinking back before it unfolds. The rage Catherine feels in that moment as her parents back her into the proverbial corner is fresher and more in character than the rage that tears through her in the denouement: the only thing stopping this from being the tipping point is hesitation on Meyer’s part.

Its blistering resonance is instead cut short in favor of the real conclusion, maybe because Meyer worried that it was too juvenile or trivial to be truly convincing as the last straw. What replaces it, however, is a convoluted destiny plot that eats up the last 80 pages, breaching an ‘inevitability of fate’ motif that was conspicuously absent from the first 300, and pushing the excessive pulp of a gruesome tragedy to the fore at the cost of something quieter but much richer in character.

The ultimate weakness of Heartless, if I may be so bold as to call it a tragic flaw, is its fixation on the ‘what if’ that spawned the book, more concerned with making a convincing argument than with letting the character change organically. It seems like Meyer opted for the drastic ending not because it suited Catherine in particular, but because it’s an easier ‘what if;’ something an outside viewer would more readily accept as a villain origin story.

In effect, I’m being convinced where I should be enthralled, Catherine’s eventual fate a drag on the story where it should be an asset.

Destiny works in mysterious ways. Except, of course, when it doesn’t.

“The Price Guide to the Occult” Is A Witch Story Sapped of Magic

In The Price Guide to the Occult, Leslye Walton tell us exactly what the curse is right away.

This isn’t exactly a problem for Walton, whose 2016 novel The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is all the more rich for its detailed backstory and family history––we don’t meet the titular character until nearly a hundred pages in, but by then we’ve been endowed with an intimate understanding of the dismal fates of all her ancestors, and are bracing ourselves for whatever ironic/magical/heartbreaking conclusion the future has in store for her.

Walton returns to her multi-generational roots in The Price Guide to the Occult, a rain-soaked contemporary fantasy tale set (again) in the Pacific Northwest. Here, she substitutes a quick-witted prologue for chapters of setup, where a new arrival to the aptly named Anathema Island, Rona Blackburn, under threat by settlers who believe she’s a witch (she is, but that’s beside the point), binds herself to the island to take refuge in its magic, and in effect curses all her descendants, right down to Nor Blackburn, of the present day. No member of the Blackburn lineage has been a proper, spell-casting witch since Rona. Instead, every new daughter is saddled with a specific supernatural Burden: Nor’s grandmother can heal, and Nor herself hears the thoughts and feelings of plants and animals. The curse also extends to the Blackburns’ romantic lives: they’re all doomed to short-lived love stories with (mostly) tragic endings.

Things unfold rather slowly (a misstep, considering the story Price Guide is aiming for), but the book essentially follows Nor as her estranged mother, Fern, makes a very public return to magic. One day, during a routine shift at Anathema Island’s kitschy occult shop, The Witching Hour, a book offering Fern’s mystical services arrives, and within weeks, she commands an army of devoted followers, which Nor watches her amass from a distance, with horror.

But The Price Guide to the Occult‘s iffy attempts at suspense do quite a number on this plot line. For one thing, the threat, even when it arrives in the sickening perfect form of Fern Blackburn, seems distant, unreal, and superfluous at every turn. Nor, at one point, has to go so far as to duck into hiding, but even with all of Walton’s specific gory details, no monstrous thing about Fern comes to life, no part of her sway over her devoted followers is made visible, and so the reader is left not terrified, not fascinated, but baffled––baffled by the power that Fern really has no compelling reason to have, baffled by her influence, her persistent absence for the story, her framing as a villain, her vagueness.

The main ensemble, composed of Nor, her bubbly best friend Savvy, a high school crush named Reed, and his brother Grayson, is similarly sapped of narrative energy, but in a way that’s quite the opposite. They’re almost aggressively normal––Nor, the only would-be witch of the bunch, overwhelmingly so. She’s depicted as fleeing to normalcy, in response to the heavy price and corrupting qualities of her family’s magic, but beyond that, her substance is rather sparse. She just runs and recovers from things and wishes her powers would disappear. This alone isn’t a mistake for a work of fantasy to commit to doing, but there has to be something in the magic itself that truly frightens the main character. It has to show her some dark, demented part of herself she’d rather cower from all her life than see. Here, though, the fuzzy possibility of becoming like her mother is enough to drive Nor away. Away from what, it isn’t really specified, because her Burden, as it appears for most of the book, is a dull thrum too inconsequential to deserve notice most of the time, and magic as it appears otherwise is a pretty passionless affair. When it isn’t conjured in passing, it’s described in the same plainclothes terms as any other mundane task, which almost begs the reader to wonder why it’s regarded as feared or fearsome in the world at all.

Ironically, the best writing in The Price Guide to the Occult arrives in its tragically short flashbacks––the prologue at the beginning, and a few tales of past Blackburn daughters scattered through in scenes and paragraphs when there’s time. Walton is brilliant with flashbacks: she keeps just enough distance to mire the characters in their own ironies and define them with the sharp, fast strokes of a caricaturist. Against these cleanly-crafted silhouettes, details really pop––Walton can make a convincing case for love bringing her characters to their knees in a fraction of the time as it takes for most stories to do so, with just a few carefully-curated images and a discerning gaze that allows her to regard them with distant, narratorly pity.

However well this approach makes for the past, though, it almost repels the present day. Walton gets around this in Ava Lavender by making the story as much about the other residents of the town as it is about Ava, so much so that several characters get this treatment and the whole book feels vividly recounted, rather than lived in real time. But in The Price Guide to the Occult, it’s all Nor, and Walton’s ending-the-curse approach to the plot forces her into Nor’s head, dulling the power of her narration. She tells us often that something terrifies Nor, that Nor shudders to imagine something, that something makes Nor’s pulse race––and it suddenly snaps the book into the past, where it makes much more sense to tell us that a character is frightened than it does to give us the culprit.

It seems, every now and then, like concept and form are at war within these pages. Leslye Walton wants to tell a story about a girl who fights off the dark allure of magic: her choices and her ability to rise to the occasion defeat a deadly force––and she, in terms of movers and shakers, is alone. But her writing, suited to swift and well-defined portraits, and casts of characters that tug and snap at each other more than they effect disaster in the real world, seems to want to tell something entirely different.

“Elatsoe” Is Required Reading for Anyone Who Likes Ghosts, Sleuthing, and a Good Time

In a slightly different America, magic and the supernatural are routine: the federal government regulates the use of fairy circles, powers are passed down like traditions, and vampires are relatively ordinary––if ostracized. This is the world of Darcie Little Badger’s debut YA novel, Elatsoe. It takes some cues from fabulism, where stories more-or-less belong to the contemporary label, and magic, generally a mundane feature of society, takes a subtle back seat, but in stakes, mystery, and scientific sensibilities, Elatsoe is something all its own. A detective puzzle. A ghost story. An adventure. A family reckoning.

At curtain, we meet Ellie, short for Elatsoe, and her dog, Kirby. (And yes, miraculously, amidst everything else, Elatsoe also manages to be a touching girl-and-her-dog story.) But Kirby is more than what only occasionally meets the eye: he’s been dead for five years, and the canine playing with Ellie on page one is an oft-invisible ghost, one Ellie learned to summon at twelve, when members of her Lipan Apache family learn the family secret, along with its corresponding unbreakable rule: the ghosts of animals, both ancient and recently deceased, are fair game. But the human dead are fearsome things, not to be tampered with.

When her cousin Trevor dies in the eerie town of Willowbee, Texas, it’s ruled an accident. But his parting words, given to Ellie in a dream, tell a different story. After this revelation, the murder mystery plot of Elatsoe sets off at a fast clip, and Ellie’s keen eyes, with the close help of her family and a witty best friend, uncover the dark secrets of a too-perfect small town.

In the uncovering of Elatsoe’s plot developments, one key quality of our seventeen-year-old investigator stands out right away: Ellie, uniquely for YA literature, doesn’t stand alone. The nature of Darcie Little Badger’s fantasy world confers a surprising advantage that most paranormal and fantastical circumstances do not: unearthing the truth about Trevor’s death is a family affair, as are Ellie’s dealings with ghosts––we get to see it test Ellie and her family together, and the more dangerous obstacles are faced by a team, rather than one intrepid teenager. Elatsoe reflects, quite generously, the reality that teenagers can, and do, rely on their families, and it doesn’t make them any less capable. A crisis, with the usual friction of an I-want-to-help vs. you-should-stay-safe dispute, doesn’t have to mark an exception.

Connected with this are the largely low-stakes, research-based sleuthing techniques Ellie uses to get a grip on the situation––aside from the paranormal leads. And, yes, this is a very niche thing to get excited about, but the way Little Badger skillfully incorporates history into the proceedings lends so much richness to the novel, injecting intensity and urgency into gaps in the town’s record where unsavory details have been papered over. The revelations you can derive from an afternoon of research (and Elatsoe is filled to the brim with the nitty-gritty of afternoons of research) are the bread and butter of this novel’s truly fascinating process. What’s more, they’re genuinely feasible for our young protagonist who’s been told to stay out of trouble, rendering a strikingly grounded central plot against a setting of magic and wonder.

Little Badger’s worldbuilding is gorgeously fluid. Details emerge organically and so much of it feels unexplored––not in a wasted-potential way, but in a sense that’s true to life, where every novel has side characters with lives lived mostly off the page, and Elatsoe gives the tantalizing impression that there are as many forms of magic as there are cultures, and what we see here is the tiniest impression of a world as genuinely varied as our own.

The traditions in Ellie’s family are also tied to a rich history of story, with tales of Ellie’s Six-Great (eight generations back) grandmother making occasional appearances. The narrative threads of Elatsoe feel like so much more than themselves, connected by storytelling to the distant, legendary past, and tied by Ellie’s skill to the ghosts of a far earlier time.

Elatsoe has adventure, fairy circles, and ghost dogs, but the coolest thing in it by far is an abundance of creatures from the Ice Age and beyond. In an act of unabashed nerdiness, Little Badger uses the paranormal elements of her creation to awaken through fiction a mammoth, a trilobite, and whales of eons past, an indulgence that’s incredibly rare in speculative fiction, but so overwhelmingly cool that every work without it present is suddenly operating at a massive loss.

The most impressive quality of Elatsoe, though, is that it uses the strange and divine precisely how our world would use it, running the gamut from beauty to terror. It has magic that exploits the natural world and takes advantage of the vulnerable. It has wondrous but tightly-guarded secrets. It has dogs that are loved long after their deaths. It has an expansive sense of time that’s only broadened by dances with the metaphysical. Elatsoe, in these terms, is miraculous: it brings the faraway close, and somehow grounds the lofty without crushing it.

‘The Shadows Between Us’ A Villain Romance That Can’t Quite Commit

The Shadows Between Us reads like the very best of Archive of Our Own’s enemies-to-lovers tag, what, with its deeply significant material gestures and infuriating restraint. Levenseller doesn’t even toss Alessandra a kiss scene until both she and her love interest are thoroughly steeped in denial.

Whatever comes after, The Shadows Between Us takes the cake for a phenomenal first line.

“They’ve never found the body of the first and only boy who broke my heart,” the inimitable Alessandra Stathos tells us on page one, unsheathing her gilded dagger of wickedness from the get-go.

Then comes the final nail in the makeshift coffin, the sign that we are about to read the shameless first-person account of a stylish evildoer. Alessandra’s next line: “And they never will.”

After a long YA tradition of rejecting the dark side of the love triangle, to mixed effect, Levenseller does away with the safe option immediately. The Shadows Between Us is entirely free of moralizing Macbeth-style consequences, and the Right Thing in any form, instead preferring to see its main character plot murders, practice tyranny, and ruin reputations in peace.

In a way, it’s liberating.

The Shadows Between Us is fun in a way plenty of YA titles can never be. It doesn’t care a whit what you think about it, and in the meantime engages in girlish delight as Alessandra’s diabolical pieces fall into place. As she goes about seducing the secretive and closely-guarded Shadow King, fully intending to kill him, she doesn’t begin to question her choices because of an epiphany––by all metrics, Levenseller has written a heroine who is epiphany-proof––she simply begins to suspect that the Shadow King likes the way she thinks and is quite possibly unbothered by her body count.

We don’t see much of the kingdom Alessandra’s looking to rule with an iron fist––and indeed, the less the better––but this riotous and raucous 300-page power-play has everything it needs to make for a good time, and squeezes in some levity, light subplots, and fluff besides.

Where this devil-may-care angle gets messy, though, is this villain romp’s attempt to have its own villains. The courtesans (locked tight in a competition with our had over who gets to slay the Shadow King first), feature little enough to be throwaways, and yet, pitifully, aren’t.

The aggressor’s motives are shallow, petty, and profoundly uninteresting, but what really rings false about this mutinous plot is how eagerly Levenseller allows her characters to slip into condemnation. Yes, the Shadow King and Alessandra have discovered a clandestine plot against his life, but, well, you know.

They react indignantly to this admittedly short-lived threat, where Levenseller could have probably made a much sounder character choice if she had given them the bandwidth to coolly acknowledge their rivals’ wants as tandem to their own, before putting out the fire without a second thought.

The Shadows Between Us would have been perfectly structurally sound in the third act without this unnecessary extra pound of intrigue (and soap-operatic last twenty pages) ha the apex just focused on romantic resolution. But Levenseller isn’t quite faithful enough in her pair’s morally grey status to give them a truly selfish, unheroic conclusion. Instead, someone’s life has to be at risk, and the story of these cruel, calculating main characters has to end with a good deed.

To Levenseller’s credit, the truly well-crafted plot doesn’t go neglected as her story stretches to accommodate this one. She somehow manages to make 300 pages crackle like a slow burn, giving these sparring forces reasons to love each other, and every better instinct to turn away.

When the lead-up is this faithful to the characters, it doesn’t matter that it seems like the entire world conspires to get the two of the alone in a room, or that all the court drama Levenseller writes has to quiet for a moment so her leads can bicker. Romance in fast-paced fantasy stories can often feel obligatory, but instead, everything else feels that way, because the substance of The Shadows Between Us isn’t undermined by a kissing interlude.

The romance is the substance. It reads like the very best of Archive of Our Own’s enemies-to-lovers tag, what, with its deeply significant material gestures, and infuriating restraint. Levenseller doesn’t even throw Alessandra a kiss until both she and her love interest are thoroughly steeped in denial. The Shadows Between Us as a romance far exceeds it as anything else, and in fact its “YA fantasy” label may even do it a disservice. To some degree, what Barnes and Noble calls “YA fantasy and adventure” is sort of expected to deliver on conflict that isn’t about characters and their feelings on one another, so The Shadows Between Us has to chip in on an assassination/secret identity plot at the very end in order to avoid being minimized. So it goes.

When the book isn’t busy with its love story, or its B-villains, it takes some time to expand the lives of Alessandra’s much-tamer friends, giving them their own romantic exploits and personal scruples to overcome. Levenseller goes all in with these side stories to satisfying effect, giving an element that doesn’t usually have much weight a clear distinction of importance. This is where the real value of her story lies, in things that make you giddy to witness, in the small exploits that make for good fluff.

It isn’t flawless, but there’s undoubtedly merit of some kind in a book that flies by in a day.