When C.S. Pacat introduces the two sixteen-year-old protagonists of Dark Rise, each embodies elements of the Chosen One archetype, but with a clever riff: Will Kempen works as a humble dock boy, despite his bearing and patched clothing hinting at him belonging elsewhere in society… but it’s not that he doesn’t know where he came from, it’s that he steadfastly does not think about it. Violet Ballard, a biracial Indian bastard raised in her father’s London household, envies her half-brother his allegiance with revered businessman Simon Crenshaw… but he’s not the only one who has the strength to become Lord Simon’s right-hand man. In short, Will and Violet each know something that the reader doesn’t, yet they also have a lot to learn about how their respective heritages relate to the centuries-long, otherworldly war between the Stewards of the Light and the Dark King with his revenant army of shadows and Reborn.
This saga is both endless and ending; the last of the Stewards are pushing back against the Dark King’s long-planned return, and depending on how these new players affect the cyclical fight, they could either prolong the epic stalemate or finally push things into either blinding hope or black despair. The first in a new young adult historical fantasy series from the author of the beloved Captive Prince trilogy, Dark Rise relies heavily on the light-versus-dark shorthand, with not quite enough time spent in the gray areas—because when Pacat does acknowledge the lure of dark desires and the problems with purity, the story is at its most engaging.
These teenagers’ orbits might never have intersected in 1821 London were it not for a confluence of events at the Thames docks on Simon’s ship, back from another triumphant looting of artifacts from some mysterious location beyond England. What is meant to be a triumphant welcome into Simon’s fold for Violet’s older brother Tom—complete with the disturbing practice of branding his eager followers with an S—is spoiled by the intrusion of warriors who look like they were plucked out of an illuminated manuscript: the Stewards, dressed in snowy white tunics, wielding swords and super-strength like medieval knights who might have traded the Holy Grail for a cup with a bit more oomph to it.
Through some key demonstrations that prove they’re no ordinary youths, plus a well-timed misunderstanding in all the chaos, Violet and Will get whisked through the proverbial portal to the Hall of Stewards: a mythical fort where these warriors of justice (including one literally named Justice) once made their last stand against the Dark King the first time he tried to plunge the world into darkness. Their joint coming-of-age involves not only learning about this fabled, nigh-eternal battle between light and dark, but also discovering their own potential places within it—Violet as a warrior (despite her bloodline harkening to the darker side) and Will as a magic-user (due to a family heirloom and visions of a woman with his mother’s eyes). While these new friends are still struggling to figure out where they fit into this already-woven tapestry, Simon is sending out minions like James, one of the Dark King’s generals Reborn into a new body but bearing memories of that long-ago battlefield and the benefit of hindsight, to track down an artifact that will help him resurrect the Dark King and his shadow followers.
A Narnia-esque portal to a Hogwarts-like interlude preparing for a prophetic battle straight out of Middle-earth demonstrates the clashing themes at the heart of Dark Rise: either a new era is upon us and the old ways are over… or we’re doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over. Pacat’s clear canon of fantasy influences (there’s even some of The Last Unicorn later on) makes for an easy shorthand, but also overshadows the rare unique aspects of her worldbuilding, primarily involving the idiosyncratic existence of the Stewards. More interesting than the repetition of ancient warnings like He is coming are specific details of how the warrior-monks pluck novitiates from all over the globe so that there is no single racial or gendered ideal of the Steward, or how they draw incredible power and magical healing from various ancient treasures—but they have lost the knowledge behind those relics, so that if they were destroyed they would have no way to repair them.
Frankly, the Stewards come across as a bit too good, too annoyingly pure—rigidly ascetic and self-denying like Old Republic Jedi. The issue is that the reader only experiences the Stewards from an outsider’s perspective—either Will’s, struggling to live up to his connection to the Stewards’ mythical Lady, or Violet’s, hiding her connection to the dark side for fear of the prejudices it would awaken. Despite their dedicated trainings at the Hall, they are never fully welcomed, and so we don’t get to really immerse ourselves in the Stewards’ world.
Considering that Pacat jumps around to other POV characters, it could have been useful to pop into the mind of steadfast champion Justice—especially considering that he, like Violet, might feel out of place as an Asian fighter in nineteenth-century England—or sneering novitiate Cyprian. Presenting a completely ingrained perspective on the Stewards’ stubbornly disciplined ethos would have better emphasized how even the most well-meaning systems can be flawed. Similarly, there are numerous opportunities for dramatic tension between the viewpoints that are explored, but rarely are they utilized; in most cases, one character will repeat information that has already been expressed from another’s perspective, so that any reveal or conflict is dampened by talking too much about it rather than too little.
Where Dark Rise gets going is once the wheels of destiny click into place, forcing characters out of the hypothetical into the concrete—particularly where forbidden temptations are involved for Will, drawn as he is to both the Dark King’s deadly weapon (and rumored lover) James as well as Simon’s naïve fiancée Katherine. Pacat has proven with Captive Prince that she knows all about dark desires, so it is a little jarring to see how she caps that sharpness here. Yes, of course there is a world of difference between her twentysomething master/slave princes and these teenagers being awakened to the light-versus-dark conflict just beyond their awareness. But Will and James—and Violet and Katherine, to some extent—are also at that YA cusp of adulthood, where sixteen means they’re aware of temptations and darker natures, even if they don’t yet feel ready to act on them. Hopefully future installments will further explore the heady power of control, especially when you’re the descendant of an ancient warrior and expected to carry that epic legacy into the contemporary fight.
Dark Rise is available from Quill Tree Books.