Title: Darker Still
Author: Leanna Renee Hieber
Genre: young-adult, supernatural fiction, historical fiction
Series: Magic Most Foul #1
Pages: 330 (Nook NetGalley ARC edition)
Published: November 2011
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Source: publishers via NetGalley
The Picture of Dorian Gray meets Pride and Prejudice, with a dash of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
New York City, 1882. Seventeen-year-old Natalie Stewart's latest obsession is a painting of the handsome British Lord Denbury. Something in his striking blue eyes calls to her. As his incredibly life-like gaze seems to follow her, Natalie gets the uneasy feeling that details of the painting keep changing...
Jonathan Denbury's soul is trapped in the gilded painting by dark magic while his possessed body commits unspeakable crimes in the city slums. He must lure Natalie into the painting, for only together can they reverse the curse and free his damaged soul.
Darker Still was a lot of fun for me to read, from beginning to end. Witty, charming and full of magic most foul, this is a young-adult foray into the supernatural that succeeds on many levels. Charming, real, fleshed out characters commingle with an intriguing plotline and an original hook to make for a read that is nearly impossible to set down. This is a novel to be devoured in as few sittings as possible; I raced through every chapter, eager for more. Though clearly an homage to famous works and characters (The Picture of Dorian Gray and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are the best comparisons, and I honestly don't think the Pride and Prejudice comparison is warranted at all), Ms. Hieber's Darker Still can stand firmly on its own two feet as a charming and clever novel with oodles of promise for the same in its incumbent sequels.
Set with the backdrop of alluring 1880's New York City, Darker Still is the vehicle of Natalie Stewart. Natalie is known as an "unfortunate" of the times, known better today as a mute. This middle-class ball of spunk is an auburn-haired and smart young woman: headstrong but not foolhardy. She's just as a young-woman of the times should be: scheming, determined and dramatic. I had a lot of fun with Natalie, though obvious from the "mute" label, she is not an ordinary, run-of-the-mill protagonist. Natalie possesses a hidden steel to her character that I hadn't expected and thoroughly enjoyed. She's also pretty handy with a weapon, and I love a main character that can defend herself ably, without degenerating into the unbelievable "Waif Fu" of Vin in Mistborn, or Lisbeth Salander. I also enjoyed that the novel itself was written as a personal recollection of Miss Stewart's. As a mute, it was a subtle reminder of how limited the narrator's communications were: only Natalie's thoughts are shown and examined. It was a nice period-appropriate touch, with contributions from letters/notes/etc. pertinent to the case added in for extra clarity, reference or emphasis. What also helps the atmosphere of Miss Stewart's first-person tale are the mixed-in touches of period-appropriate terms ("histrionic ward" "not all the lamps were on in my attic") to keep the reader firmly in the mindset of gentler, more refined time in history.
Jonathan Whitby, Lord Denbury, the man caught inside the painting, takes longer than Natalie to coalesce into a three-dimensional character (I made a pun! Go me!) Jonathon is also an interesting character because, as hinted both by Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Picture of Dorian Gray in the synopsis blurb, there are two Denbury's operating upon the pages of Darker Still: the one imprisoned (the "soul" of the man if you will), and the one corporeal and mobile (the body, possessed by another). The "demon Denbury" is dark, murderous and quite adept at ratcheting up the tension of the novel. But for all his dark allure, it is the painting of the man that catches the attention of the reader, not his evil counterpart wreaking murder and misery through New York. I loved Denbury: from the outset of his appearance in the novel, he is charming and tormented, caring and compassionate. I quite honestly loved Denbury with Natalie: theirs is a relationship that brings out the best in the other, while managing to be completely cute and age-appropriate.
I for one totally bought into the odd but charming romance between the painting and the mute teenager. Natalie, like Lord Denbury inside his painted prison, has sat and watched her life be decided for her, with no input or decision-making power in her own hands.Once she makes the decision to help Denbury, a real change is present in the character - Natalie breaks free of her own self-induced apathy and takes charge for the first time. I do think "love" may have been introduced premature as part of their relationship's natural arc, but they two grow into it and I accepted their commitment before too long. (This was probably helped by my largely
fangirl favorable impression of Jonathon himself...) I liked the more background characters of the novel as well, but though they suffered from a slight lack of personalization. Evelyn Northe is an intelligent, wily older society lady of New York and I wish more had been provided for her character: she seems to pop up when most needed and recede to the background until a drastic measure must be taken. Mrs. Northe's niece Margaret has the same issue, except that she's trotted out to cause possessive and romantic issues about the painting and later, Denbury himself. I wish these two ladies had more flair of their own, and were less dependent on Natalie to carry the novel.
Darker Still's magic was also creative and interesting. Incorporating many and vaired themes and items from various cultures across the world, the forces of Darker Still are seemingly quite powerful - and often awful in nature. From the nasty Crenfall (which is a name reminiscent of Dracula's Renfield, no?) to Mrs. Northe herself, the reader is never sure who possess what powers and the intentions for them. I liked the varied and intermingled aspects of the curse/spell/power that imprisoned Denbury particularly: the severing of the soul from the body is a visceral and cringe-inducing act, illustrating the cutthroat nature of the supernatural in Ms. Hieber's alternate history. In addition to the magic most foul, the writing and style of the novel itself do much to present a dark, mysteriously magical facade. "The plot has thickened and how. Lives, sanities, and the very fabric of reality remain on the line..." is just one of many possible examples of Natalie's harried and excited style of narration.
My few complaints include the rather rushed ending to a finely drawn out story. I adored the connecting threads of religion, power and magic, but felt that they were thrown too hastily together for a tidy, easy conclusion. Still, I enjoyed Darker Still enough that though I read a free ARC from the publishers, I still want my very own copy to have and love. (Who could resist that cover, anyway?) I look eagerly forward to the continued escapades of Natalie and Jonathan and hope the sequels meet the high bar set by the series impressive and lively introduction. This novel, in the most simple terms, is just fun, enjoyable and completely individual. Pick it up when you spy a copy, you won't regret the purchase.