Book: “Dark of the West” by Joanna Hathaway
Publishing Info: Tor Teen, February 2019
Where Did I Get this Book: Netgalley
Book Description: Aurelia Isendare is a princess of a small kingdom in the North, raised in privilege but shielded from politics as her brother prepares to step up to the throne. Halfway around the world, Athan Dakar, the youngest son of a ruthless general, is a fighter pilot longing for a life away from the front lines. When Athan’s mother is shot and killed, his father is convinced it’s the work of his old rival, the Queen of Etania—Aurelia’s mother. Determined to avenge his wife’s murder, he devises a plot to overthrow the Queen, a plot which sends Athan undercover to Etania to gain intel from her children.
Athan’s mission becomes complicated when he finds himself falling for the girl he’s been tasked with spying upon. Aurelia feels the same attraction, all the while desperately seeking to stop the war threatening to break between the Southern territory and the old Northern kingdoms that control it—a war in which Athan’s father is determined to play a role. As diplomatic ties manage to just barely hold, the two teens struggle to remain loyal to their families and each other as they learn that war is not as black and white as they’ve been raised to believe.
Review: I’m pretty sure I came across this book just by browsing through NetGalley one day and being intrigued by its rather simple cover. The fact that I couldn’t really guess what it was about based on the cover was mystery enough (this is a fun little game if you’re a book lover and have too much time on your hands: the match the cover with the general synopsis game). Then I read the description and became even more intrigued. Spies, and royalty, and…wait…fighter pilots? One of these does not go with the other!
The world is teetering on the brink, torn between a past that was ruled by a council of kings and queens who all regarded royal blood as the necessary component in leadership in their various countries, and a new world that, built on the back of technology, would suggest that leadership and charisma, regardless of the birthright of the one who carries these traits, are all that is needed. If the people follow you, your family history means nothing. Aurelia and Athan each come from opposing sides of this political stand-off. Aurelia has grown up a princess, confident in her place in the world, if still struggling to find a path forward that will fulfill her. Athan has had his life’s plan laid before his feet by his ambitious military leader father since the day he can remember. Neither fully understands the complicated history and political environment they have been thrust into, but in each other, they find a kinship that is as unexpected as it will be challenging.
This book took my so happily by surprise! Even with the book description, I had very little idea what I was getting into (part of the appeal, of course), so I turned to page one with a bit of hesitation. But immediately I was drawn in. For one, the writing in this is so solid. The very first chapter had me convinced that I had made the right choice in picking this one up. It’s one of those parts of reviewing books that I find most challenging: how to explain exactly what it was about the writing style that appealed to me.
For one, the book is a shared dual narrative between Aurelia and Athan. The challenge here, of course, is to effectively differentiate the voice between two characters who should read very differently. And right away, this is expertly handled. I think I ended up preferring Athan’s narrative style, but this potentially could have to do with his story being the one with the larger scale view of happenings in mind. Aurelia spends much of her time much more out of the loop. But either way, their voices were immediately distinct and their characteristics informed the way they spoke about and looked at the events unfolding around them.
From a more basic level, the writing is varied and complex. This is the weird part of evaluating writing where one feels tempted to start talking about the extent of the vocabulary used or the sentence structure. Again, not too sexy of a topic for book review material. But these are the kinds of things that you know when you see them, that make a book immediately pop out from the very first few pages.
All of this emphasis on writing is very important for a book like this. It’s a longer title and, as far as action goes, it’s a slow read. There’s a lot of complicated political and military tactics that are discussed, hidden, and revealed throughout the story. Our main characters are often only aware of the tip of the iceberg of it all, and that is felt by the reader. Schemes only become clear in the very end, and even then, one is never quite sure they have a finger on who all the players are in all of this. I believe there will be a map in the final version, but without that as well, the complicated geographical relationships between the various countries could also be overwhelming. To sum up: there’s a lot of talking and thinking in this book. Without strong writing, it could come across as pretty dull. But for me, it all came together perfectly.
This is also a strange book to assign to a genre. It’s technically referred to as a YA title and fantasy. But that said, I feel like this could easily be new adult or simply adult fiction; and any fantasy involved has to do with it being a made-up world. There aren’t any dragons or spells flying around here. Instead, the fascinating mixture of a completely invented world and history with very familiar, WWII level technology was refreshingly new.
There is, of course, a romance at the heart of the story. And I really enjoyed how this played out as well. Aurelia and Athan don’t simply fall instantly in love and all of their differences fade away. They come from different worlds, with different parental figures who have imparted very different lessons on their children. Throughout the story, no easy answers are provided and instead a slow sense of dread builds to what will be an inevitable clash.
As I said, this book took my completely by surprise. Luckily for me, it hit a lot of the tick boxes I look for in a story, but I can also see how the very unknown nature of it could leave other readers cold. If you go in with your typical YA/fantasy expectations in place, there’s a good chance this will feel like a slower, less interesting read. But for those looking for a more complicated, politically-focused story with a hard look at warfare and nationalism (with a dash of young love added in), this will be the perfect book for you!
Rating 9: Complicated and well-written, this book will appeal to fans of “Game of Thrones” who would be ok without all the dragons/white walkers stuff.
“Dark of the West” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Books Marketed as Young adult that might be New Adult, Adult Fiction” and “YA Second World Fantasy.”
Find “Dark of the West” at your library using WorldCat!