Book Reviews

Down Comes the Night by Allison Saft


People, I LOVE gothic stuff. I cannot get enough of mouldering abbeys and candlelight. But Down Comes the Nightmight have out-gothic-ed me, and that’s no easy feat. This book, which ends on a cliffhanger, features a scene in which the heroine, bare-footed, sneaks into the forbidden East Wing, clad in a white nightie and holding a candelabra, atmidnight, so you can tell it’s not fucking around. I was entranced by the atmosphere but the poor heroine’s indecisiveness and lack of common sense, combined with an over-reliance on cliches and purple prose, almost made this a DNF.

Wren Colwick is a healer, gifted with healing magic. She serves as a medic in the Queen’s Guard in the war between Danu (her country) and Vesria. As the daughter of the last Queen and a commoner, Wren craves the approval of her aunt, the current queen, but gets only contempt. She also longs for love and approval from her commander, Una, but although Una clearly returns Wren’s affections, Una is always a little standoffish and disapproving of Wren’s kinder qualities, because of Una’s position as a war leader.

After Wren is banished from the Guard for using her healing powers on a prisoner, she accepts a job in a neutral neighboring country, which is where the gothic kicks in. The job is with the moody Lord Lowry in his crumbling estate, Colwick Hall. Lowry wishes her to heal a servant who has a mysterious disease. Here is the contract she has to sign:

  1. I shall provide a detailed summary of the patient’s progress each week…
  2. I shall uphold the curfew and retire to my bedroom from midnight through six each morning
  3. I shall not enter the east wing of the estate
  4. I shall not leave the estate under any circumstances without express permission
This rule is not in the contract.

OF COURSE the servant is ACTUALLY Hal Cavendish, AKA Reaper of Vesria, a guy whose magic is so powerful that he kills soldiers from Danu by looking at them. OF COURSE Hal is gorgeous, emotionally and physically tortured, desperate for redemption, with “eyes like a starless sky.” He is pale, he is thin, he is needy. Wren wants to hate him but please, she doesn’t stand a chance: of course these two people are mad for each other.

Wise words, Bonnie Hunt, wise words indeed.

This seems as good a time as any to try to discuss the admittedly fine line between homage and cliche. Gothic is a recognizable style because of certain recurring tropes. These tropes are part of the fun – the crumbling estate, the mysterious forbidden area, the Byronic hero, etc. However, this book relies so heavily on a combination of either linguistic cliche or linguistic overkill that it loses its impact. It’s not enough that Hal’s eyes are black “as the ravens”. In addition to the similes mentioned above, it turns out that “beneath the surface there was indigo and cobalt, as clear and cold as glacial water.” That’s a lot.

On the other hand, sometimes the effusive language works. Honestly, this is an impossible to grade book, because quotes like the ones below (which describe various different people) will either make you vomit or send you into ecstasies, and I am not here to judge you either way. You do you!

The light brushed gold over his features, as stark and shining as an icon of a saint.

As he approached her, she smelled warmth: coffee and rich spices. But it was the kind of late-summer warmth too quickly chased away. In its wake was something icy and almost floral, like sterilizing chemicals.

He had a smile like an air pump. It sucked all the oxygen from the room.

He strode forward, carrying a candelabra. Painted all in stark orange and black, he looked like a thing half-made in fire.

What does that mean?

It truly shocks me to say this, but this book did not work for me. My main difficulty was not the lavish writing style, which I had a love/hate relationship with. My main difficulty was that Wren, Lord bless her tender heart, is not the brightest bulb in the tanning bed. She makes many, many terrible decisions. She also constantly changes her mind so much that the story becomes rambling and repetitive. There are only so many paragraphs of “I won’t turn him in to get the Queen’s approval and win back Una, I will turn him in, I won’t turn him in, I will turn him in” that I can take.

As evidence, I point out that Wren has “half a mind” four times in one book. That’s a lot of halves, and these halves are only a small sample of the many times she oscillates. One whole mind would have served Wren much better. The story starts well but drags on and on in a tedious cycle of emotional hand-wringing only to end on a cliff-hanger, suggesting sequels with more of the same.

While I have been tough on this book, there was a lot about it that I liked. First of all, the whole Gothic/writing style/endless angst thing is very much a mileage-may-vary kind of thing. It’s true that I felt the book was too much of a good thing (in the sense that it dragged and in the sense of overkill on many levels) but others might adore it for the very reasons I disliked it.

Also, I enjoyed the conversations between Wren and Hal, especially when they compare and debunk legends about their respective countries. Wren grumpily bossing Hal around and making him do therapeutic things during his recovery was pretty funny. Wren uses medical terminology, which I enjoyed. While Wren makes a lot of bad decisions in this book, I never doubted her competence as a healer. I was happy to see bisexual representation (Wren loves Una before, and arguably at the same time as, she loves Hal). However, I would have liked to have seen more of the Una/Wren romance. As it is, this doesn’t manage to be a love triangle as much as a rebound romance with Wren coping after a break-up with Una.

I realize this is a plot-heavy review but when you have an estate and a war and a mad scientist (of course there’s a mad scientist, did you doubt it for a second?) and a broken romance (Wren and Una) and an angst-ridden, war-torn, tortured sexy romance (Wren and Hal) then how can I not at least mention certain plot variables?

Does Wren go to the one part of the estate that is forbidden?

In short, read this at your own risk, and watch out for that cliffhanger. The prose, as purple as the clouds which hang, like a bruise, sheathed in lavender and violet like the petals of fading flowers, over Colwick Hall, will enchant some readers and turn off others. For me, the charm wore off long before the book was finished. I enjoyed Wren’s medical competence, but her inability to cope emotionally or politically with the rest of her life, while understandable, was exhausting. In the end, I just could not take one more bad decision or moment of hand wringing or oscillating from our beleaguered heroine who wavers like a feather balanced on the brink of a sea-side cliff in a windstorm clothed in gusts of indecision, internal conflict, and just a few too many similes.

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