Darkhaven by A.F.E. Smith


It had been weeks since Ayla last felt a breeze touch her face. As she slipped through the door into the shadows of the square, the scents of a summer night caressed her with their familiarity: aromatic pine, horse manure, the dragonlilies that grew outside the tower. Above her, the patterns of the stars were unchanged. She hadn’t been locked up that long, after all. It just felt like forever.

There will be no-one patrolling the square.
She repeated her brother’s words to herself.
Go straight across. The postern will be open, and you’ll find supplies there to help you. After that I can do no more.

She hesitated, skin crawling with tiny spiders of unease. The darkness on the far side of the square was too heavy for the moonlight to penetrate; anything could be waiting for her. Yet Myrren’s instructions hadn’t failed her so far. When she’d tried the door of her cell at the seventh bell, it had been unlocked just as he’d promised. And the two men in the guardroom had been deep in the oblivion of sleep, not stirring even when she crept past them to climb the flight of steps that was the only way out. Her brother’s words were her compass. She had to trust them.

A Nightshade without the family gift of Changing, Myrren is a source of constant disappointment to his father, who tries to disinherit him in favour of his sister Ayla. At least she can Change, although her second form is a hybrid, not one of the traditional five, and she’s only a half-blood Nightshade. But Ayla’s loyalty to Myrren won’t let her take what she considers his birthright, throwing both of them into even greater conflict with their father.

As the book opens, Ayla has been falsely imprisoned for attacking a priestess, and her brother facilitates her escape from the castle dungeons. The limping Serenna, however, is testament to the fact that something attacked her. On the night of Ayla’s escape, that something rips out Florentyn Nightshade’s throat, thrusting Myrren prematurely onto the Darkhaven throne and leaving Ayla on the run, terrified of what will happen if she’s blamed for this second attack.

Myrren soon finds that elements of the Helm, Darkhaven’s guard force, are less loyal to their new lord than to his dead father. Determined to get to the truth and exonerate Ayla for good, he teams up with Serenna to investigate. Meanwhile, hiding out in the lowest reaches of the city, Ayla is forced to trust the one man she least wanted to meet: the ex-Helmsman she holds responsible for her mother’s death.

It’s probably obvious that this isn’t the lightest of books, in terms of subject matter, but I think it’s worth specifically mentioning that there’s a point-of-view character who’s an obsessive, deranged, would-be rapist. His head is not a nice place to be, and I was thankful that we see his perspective for only a few scenes. Overall, though, I found this to be a quick read, and generally infused with optimism, despite the brutal attacks. The story of the unbreakable bond between siblings is central, and there are several touching side-plots of growing love and friendship. Against a grim and violent backdrop, these moments of hope are particularly moving.

Darkhaven is an intriguing mystery in a sweeping fantasy setting. Although the eponymous fortress, and the city that surrounds it, provides locations enough for the whole story, there are plenty of hints at a wider world beyond the borders. The world is also poised on the edge of a revolution in weaponry. Although most people fight with swords, there are a couple of rare examples of pistols: technology imported from another city, that is surely set to become more widespread as its power is better understood. The owner of one of these, infamous mercenary Naeve Sorrow, is one of my favourite characters and I hope we’ll see more of her (and her gun) as the series develops.

Darkhaven is available from Amazon. The sequel, Goldenfire, was released last month.

3 thoughts on “Darkhaven by A.F.E. Smith

  1. I really loved the city she created in this story, and I enjoyed this so much. I have a copy of Goldenfire that I need to read soon, and I’m so curious to see where the story is going next.

    Liked by 1 person

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