I met Leanna this spring at a party during BEA, and was excited to read her YA debut Darker Still: A Tale of Magic Most Foul.
Here’s the setup (from the book’s page on goodreads.com):
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.
Gothic literature is not really my wheelhouse in what I prefer for my reading, but I do appreciate a well-told moody tale. Darker Still bears the gothic legacy, but is, for me, brighter and more optimistic than many gothic horror stories I’ve known. I’d classify this as YA Historical Fantasy rather than horror, though there are some solidly spooky bits.
The story moves along at a good pace, and the main character, Natalie, is well-done for me, yearning for a way to connect more effectively with the world despite her psychosomatic mutism that developed after the death of her mother years ago when Natalie was only four. The romance plot develops fairly well, with the external threat providing intensity that fuels the rapid development of their relationship.
My main complaints with the novel come from characters other than Natalie. In my reading, I found the love interest Lord Denbury too perfect by half. He’s a Magic Shiny Perfect Gorgeous Rich Boyfriend. His only faults are external and situational, rather than being character defects. He’s stuck in a portrait, and that’s a big obstacle that he and Natalie spend the book fighting, but I find it hard to connect with a character who is only ever described as wonderful and awesome. He’s generous, compassionate, progressive, and courageous. Since the book is told in epistolary form through Natalie’s POV, I get that she focuses on his positive aspects, but I was waiting for him to show something less than perfection. He slips from Total Perfection only once, and it is explained away by the narrator very quickly, rather than lingered on with any doubt.
Natalie’s main donor figure/mentor in the book, Mrs. Northe, is shown with some hubris and flaw, but she is wholly supportive of Natalie at all points — this is a recurring feature I’ve seen in many YA novels — the presence of totally and unquestioningly supportive adults who enable the teen heroes to pursue their goals. If done well, I don’t tend to mind, but I’ve seen that archetype appear enough to be notable. The story is never theirs, it’s always the teen hero’s story, so they just play through being an Awesome Donor Figure. The only time it annoys me is if the Awesome Donor Figure seems to be unrealistically supportive and/or without fault or personal agenda. Everyone has their own goals, and if the character is always uncomplicatedly useful, I think it can detract from the hero’s journey (and Hero’s Journey, since I’m talking about Donor Figures). I think Mrs. Northe stays on the rounded side of annoying for me, but she is suspiciously Always Supportive of a girl she’s just met, which makes me hope there will be some complications in future books that show her agenda as not always lining up with Natalie’s own.
Overall, I found Darker Still to be well-paced, finely written, and satisfactory even while being not my usual cup of tea in fantasy. It’s well set up for sequels, and I hope to see more roundness of character from Lord Denbury in the sequels. I’d definitely recommend it to teen readers looking for something with cool historical bits, or for fans of Wilde’s A Portrait of Dorian Gray, which provides a fair bit of the conceptual DNA of the book’s magical portrait.