Title: Darkest Knight
Author: Karen Duvall
Genre: fantasy, supernatural fiction
Series: Knight's Curse #2
Pages: 336 (Nook ARC edition)
Published: March 20 2012
Source: publishers via NetGalley
"Betray your sisters or your lover. You choose."After the warrior she loves saved her from a murderous gargoyle, Chalice watched helplessly as Aydin turned into a gargoyle himself. Now, free from the curse that enslaved her, Chalice pledges to join her sister knights in The Order of the Hatchet—and do whatever it takes to regain Aydin's humanity and his love. What she encounters within their hallowed sanctuary is pure intrigue.
Someone—or something—is murdering her sisters in their sleep, provoking fear and suspicion among the order. Meanwhile, Aydin, unable to stay away, starts haunting Chalice's dreams, urging her onward. Ultimately, Chalice will be faced with an agonizing choice—one that will tear away at her newfound identity and force her to choose between duty and desire .
This is the second novel in Duvall's creative series centered around Chalice, a member of an order of knights (The Hatchet Knights) who have been around since the Crusades and mate with the Arelim, the lowest form of angel, to propagate their order. The same original and quirky ideas for magic present in the first are contained here in second, but I have to say that overall, Ms. Duvall definitely got off on a better foot with this second effort in her UF/PNR offering. While the plot I thought would be the center of Darkest Knight (restoring Aydin back to humanity from his cursed gargoyle form) wasn't at all what this novel was about, I wasn't disappointed. The antagonist created for the events of book two neatly tied in with the mythology and lore of the first and was on the same malevolence level as the previous antagonist, the evil sorcerer-kidnapper Gavin. And while I wasn't as surprised as I could've been at the "reveal" of the Big Bad of the book and the heart of the murders/mystery, I thought it left an interesting possibility for the plot of the sure-to-follow third installment.
I felt tepid and 'mehhh' about the first (Knight's Curse) when I read it last year and a large amount of my dissatisfaction had to do with and centered around the main character Chalice. I liked it well enough, was certainly entertained by it but the knight had a way of frustrating very simple situations, either by not listening or assuming she knew all the answers. Chalice in book two is a bit more aware, a bit more intelligent and a whole lot easier for me to like. I despise when heroines are convinced they shouldn't let allies into their plans because only they can do it, only they know the risk, etc and so on! And while Chalice was like that in the first, I found that her uneasy relationship with guardian-angel Rafe brought out a more mature side to her. While I still didn't wholly invest in Chalice or closely identify with her, I do like several aspects of her personality: her independence, her openness to magic
finally, her fighting abilities; I love a heroine that can fight well and Chalice is one those few. Her martial skills complement her prickly personality quite well. One of the few major issues I had with Chalice here in this was her "instructing" the new squires of her order when Chalice has been a knight for less than three months, known of the order for only that long, has never had any formal training herself and there are older, more indoctrinated knights able to do the job....so why pick the newbie who is clueless to teach new members?
What also improved my experience the second time around is the romance of the novel. Or, to be perfectly clear, the lack of stressing the romance and love between Aydin and Chalice. I didn't buy their almost insta-love connection from book one and since they're separated more often in Darkest Knight, I actually got to see them on their own for extended periods of time. They both actually have to work for the relationship (and get over their dumb decisions, like Aydin's particularly stupid rejection in the beginning), and work together to fix Aydin's curse. It brought out another dynamic to their relationship and also helped to flesh out Aydin a bit more independently. I truly like that both people fight and struggle for the other: Aydin wants Chalice just as much as she wants him. Another bonus originality point for this series? Aydin is the swoon-worthy love interest and he is not a typical WASP. Diversity brings a lot to the table and for Aydin especially, it sets him apart from the thousands of UF/PNY love-interests out there. The whole 'gargoyle' thing doesn't hurt, either.
Back to the mythology of Darkest Knight: the world Duvall has created for her novels is a potent one. There are charms, magic, sorcerers, gargoyles, curses, guardian angels and Fallen angels - all with their own conduct, rules and uses. While the lore behind the angels can be confusing sometimes, it is unique and presents an interesting structure for the Hatchet Knights to find mates within. While the charms didn't impress me as much as the creativity shown in the first seems to have waned a tad (except for a pen with ink that makes the writer invisible - not the words being written. That's creative.) with a few exceptions: the "soul-stain" (which reminded me of Lord Denbury's condition in Darker Still), the non-dead non-living "life" of St. Geraldine, the half-sylph half-necromancer exorcist that I picture as an English man who says things like, "My dear chap, I daresay I couldn't possibly...." I also really liked that that the plot of the second book could be found mentioned/hidden within the first; there are references within Knight's Curse that, in hindsight, seem to set up the stage for book two perfectly.
The abrupt ending seemed slightly rushed to me, but definitely did not pull any punches. Characters die, lose their powers, fight and have an all-might brawl that made this quite hard to put down. This is action-packed and though some of the fights seemed redolent of earlier clashes (Evan and Zee, both specifically seemed to pop up for an altercation one too many times - especially Zee!) the pages turn quickly and Chalice's story is amusing for an hour or two. Though I found the uncovering of the Hatchet murderer to be too drawn out and arduous for how obvious it was <SPOILER>(C'mon now guys: who has acted weird and sketchy and arrived just before the murders? Who repeatedly lies and sneaks around, getting into forbidden areas and trinkets? Come on now, it shouldn't take 300 pages!)</SPOILER> Darkest Knight is a fun and enjoyable read. The ending leaves several key plotlines open for a continuing third volume and since this is one of the few series where I've liked the second more than the first, I can guarantee I'll be on the lookout for more from Chalice, Aydin, and my favorite: Ruby.