Child abuse and grooming, drug and alcohol addiction and abuse, self-harm, body modifications, cons, murders, blood, secrets, lies, theft, captivity and coercion.
Holly Black’s first novel marketed for adults is a gritty urban fantasy in which magic allows people to control their own, and sometimes other people’s, shadows, and in which the rich and powerful trade in secrets and books of lore while jockeying for power. The protagonist, Charlie, lives in the world of normality, where she is a bartender hoping to put her sister through college, and the world of magic, in which she is a con artist and a thief. This book includes a love story but has a cliffhanger ending, so keep that in mind.
Here’s the publisher’s plot description:
In Charlie Hall’s world, shadows can be altered, for entertainment and cosmetic preferences—but also to increase power and influence. You can alter someone’s feelings—and memories—but manipulating shadows has a cost, with the potential to take hours or days from your life. Your shadow holds all the parts of you that you want to keep hidden—a second self, standing just to your left, walking behind you into lit rooms. And sometimes, it has a life of its own.
Charlie is a low-level con artist, working as a bartender while trying to distance herself from the powerful and dangerous underground world of shadow trading. She gets by doing odd jobs for her patrons and the naive new money in her town at the edge of the Berkshires. But when a terrible figure from her past returns, Charlie’s present life is thrown into chaos, and her future seems at best, unclear—and at worst, non-existent. Determined to survive, Charlie throws herself into a maelstrom of secrets and murder, setting her against a cast of doppelgangers, mercurial billionaires, shadow thieves, and her own sister—all desperate to control the magic of the shadows.
This book contains a shit ton of worldbuilding without the exposition being too clunky, which matches the nuanced, complex characters. Charlie is prickly and self-destructive, a terrible substitute for a parent, and emotionally closed off, yet I was completely invested in her. I hearted her with a thousand heart emojis. I wanted to throw her into the shower, give her clean clothes, feed her, and tuck her in for a nap (probably not coincidentally, physical needs like showering and eating and sleeping get a lot of room in this book).
The structure of the book, which includes flashbacks from the points of views of different characters, helps contextualize the characters, so that I had empathy for Charlie. It also ensured that, by the time a major twist was revealed, I realized that all the pieces of this twist were right in front of me. Usually I find that these kinds of flashbacks slow the main narrative down, but in this case the main narrative zips along so quickly that a few pauses are not a problem. Meanwhile a twist is only satisfying if it makes sense and this one does. Additionally, the narrative chooses to show us how Charlie works her cons and when – but only some of the time, which gives the reader the delight of a con well executed and also makes the reader work a little.
A lot of this book is a love story, but that’s not always apparent. Charlie is a firm believer that she wrecks every good thing in her life and that women in her family are cursed to have terrible love lives, so from the moment she gets together with her boyfriend, Vince, she is bracing for him to leave. It was fascinating to watch their relationship develop based on actions (“Everybody loves the guy who brings ice”) and clues and misdirections. This is very much not a Romance Novel (™), and most of the time Vince is absent for Plot Reasons, but I loved their weird dysfunctional relationship of secrets, especially as it became more solid, honest, and mature towards the end of the book.
I regret to inform you that I was thoroughly maddened by the cliffhanger. Sometimes a book will resolve the major arc and just throw out one unresolved or new point from which a new story can emerge, so it has both a satisfying ending and a cliffhanger simultaneously. This is not one of those books. This cliffhanger is the “hanging off the cliff by fingernails with no announced date for a sequel as of the time of this review” type of cliffhanger. It is this, plus a certain amount of repetitiveness with Charlie having low self esteem problems, that bothered me most.
My favorite thing about this novel was the mix of magical elements with the details of a low-income, struggling life. Expensive cocktails sipped over deals involving ancient grimoires and murder sit side by side (not literally) with ramen and reheated spaghetti. The limousines feel more real when contrasted with Charlie’s car, which breaks down at terrible times. Charlie’s terrible but beloved couch is the site of supernatural mayhem. I loved how these kinds of things anchored each other and worked to build not only the world but also character and plot.
This is not a book about fae and it is entirely urban, not a mystical wood to be seen. Even the romance drama is mostly internal as Charlie keeps adjusting her feelings about Vince as she learns new things about him, mostly while he is away. Fans of Holly Black’s Young Adult books may have to reset their expectations. However, I really loved this gritty, horrifying, magical novel. I just hope there is a sequel!