Please note that this review may contain spoilers for its prequel, Winterkill. You can read my review of this novel [here].

Darkthaw was written by Kate A Boorman and first published in 2015. It is the second part of a planned trilogy and carries on directly where Winterkill (2014) left off, following Emmeline and her allies as they travel away from the Settlement for the first time. The final part of the trilogy, provisionally titled Heartfire, is due for release later this year.

La Prise has finally arrived and Emmeline is excited about the changes that it brings. Finally, it’s safe for her to travel through the forest to Matisa’s hometown. However, she soon discovers that the journey is not going to be as straightforward as she first imagined. Tom is unable to join her, forced to remain to care for his ailing father. Kane is also reluctant to come without his mother and brothers, raising tension among the party for fear that they will slow everyone down.

However, the biggest challenges lie outside the walls of the Settlement. The world is not how Emmeline envisioned it. The Dominion has begun its gradual crawl into the West, keen on bringing law and order to the ungoverned land. Ahead of them come all manner of outlaws, all intent on seizing control for themselves before the Dominion arrive. In addition to these, Emmeline discovers the truth of the malmaci, not a spirit but a disease that thrives in standing water. Only Matisa’s people know how to prevent the agonising death that this sickness brings.

Death and danger wait at every corner as Emmeline struggles to travel across the strange new lands and it’s not long before her party is divided. Lost in the woods with only the bad tempered Isi and Kane’s young brother for company, Emmeline battles to reunite her friends. However, she is also forced to face her own doubts. Is travelling to Matisa’s home really worth risking the lives of everyone that she’s ever cared about?

I think I’ll start this review by just making clear that Darkthaw is a far stronger novel than Winterkill. It’s really clear that it’s taken what the prequel had set up and built upon it, expanding the world and its concepts tenfold. However, Darkthaw doesn’t really stand on its own at all so I would really recommend that you read Winterkill before you pick up this novel.

At the same time, I find it hard to compare the two novels. Darkthaw really is a creature of another kind. The thing I loved most about Winterkill was its atmosphere. It was a really claustrophobic novel that closely followed Emmeline as she learned how her home came to be so cut off from the outside world. As this mystery is entirely revealed by the climax of the novel, I was uncertain how effective a sequel would be.

Boorman approaches Darkthaw as the logical next step in Emmeline’s journey. She’s uncovered the terrible truth at the heart of her community and stood up to the manipulative tyrants who formally oppressed her. Now, her future lies in the outside world. The story this time is a journey. It’s a tale of adventure, challenging Emmeline’s idyllic view of the lands beyond the forest. The world of Winterkill was very small but, this time, the scope of the story is staggering.

In this novel, the many grey areas within Winterkill’s world-building have been filled in. Through Emmeline’s experiences, we begin to see the state of the world. The story is roughly analogous to the settlement of North America, with the native First People being gradually driven out and exploited by the arrival of “pale” settlers. The encroaching Dominion with their superior weaponry remain an ominous threat on the horizon but the opportunistic outlaws are more frightening still. Darkthaw is certainly not a happy novel. While it’s not graphic, the implications of what the outlaws are capable of are pretty horrific (especially where women are concerned). From start to finish, the novel is full of death and sickness and loss, yet somehow this combination makes for an incredibly compelling read.

But, for all the story’s strengths, it still felt as though something was missing. I personally think that Darkthaw suffered from middle novel syndrome. Looking back on it as a whole, I realise that it didn’t really have a plot in its own right. It existed purely to get Emmeline to where she needs to be for the final book. While the novel wasn’t boring, it certainly felt more like a collection of events than a polished whole.

The novel also had a problem with things happening for plot convenience. At times, it felt as though Boorman had written herself into a corner and the only way out was through crazy random happenstance. At one point, Emmeline finds a horse in the middle of the woods that has somehow managed to escape from an outlaw camp (and not been noticed despite the fact it’s cover in bells). At another, Emmeline’s party is captured and has seemingly no chance of escape until a character who had not been mentioned for over two hundred pages suddenly appears to save the day. Let’s also note that this character had managed to locate Emmeline when he didn’t know where she was heading and she had a head start of at least six days. In a story that is otherwise pretty gritty and realistic, I found it hard to suspend my disbelief that far.

Yet the thing that made Darkthaw most interesting was Emmeline herself. In my previous review, I commended Winterkill for the development of her character. In this book, her development really was the best thing. I loved seeing her gaining strength and confidence as the story progressed, learning to stop criticising herself so harshly and believe in herself. I’m pleased to say that this growth continued into Darkthaw. Emmeline finds herself unable to truly break from the old virtues of the Settlement – Honesty, Bravery and Discovery – and constantly questions what they actually mean. Her narrative is riddled with doubt but she learns from her experiences. By the end of the novel, it’s clear that she’s a very different person from the self-loathing maid that she was at the beginning of Winterkill.

While the rest of the characters in the story vary in depth, there are two relationships with Emmeline that I found particularly interesting. The first is her friendship with Isi. From the beginning of the story, it is made clear that Isi holds Emmeline in utter contempt. He views her as a liability; slow, stupid and likely to get to get them all killed through her “selfish” desire to help as many people leave the Settlement as possible. It was inevitable that these two would wind up spending a chunk of the story reliant on each other. It felt really natural how their bond gradually strengthened, solidifying as they began to discuss the meaning of their dreams. I really do want to see where this friendship will go in the next novel.

The second relationship of interest was between Emmeline and Kane. While I still do find Kane to be a rather bland character, I felt that Emmeline’s shifting feelings in the novel were very interesting. It was pretty clear from early in the novel that Kane had little interest in Emmeline’s dreams and was only truly wanted to travel with her so long as she followed him where he wanted to go. I was really satisfied with the way that this panned out. Although it put a heavy emotional strain on Emmeline, it helped emphasise her strength of will. It takes a lot for a person to stand up for what they believe is right, especially if it means potentially hurting someone close to them.

Anyhow, I guess that’s a good point for me to wrap up this review. All in all, it’s clear that this story is getting stronger. While Darkthaw wasn’t perfect, I did think it took the ideas raised in Winterkill and really developed them into something interesting. I’m rather looking forward to seeing where Boorman will take this story next when Heartfire is released later this year.

Darkthaw can be purchased as a Paperback and eBook on Amazon.co.uk

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Heartfire | Arkham Reviews

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