Against a Darkening Sky, a historical fiction novel by author Lauren Davis is, for the most part, pretty dang good.
I’ve never read anything by Davis before, however I have heard of one of her bigger books, The Empty Room. But me reading this book was completely random chance by me going to a Chapters store that was selling out because the location was closing (50 percent off like everything), thinking about wanting to read more hist fic, seeing this one with its, quite frankly, beautiful cover, and purchasing it on a whim.
When I started to read the book, I actually regretted buying it immediately. I thought to myself, “I’m sure this book is in a library, I could have literally read it for free, this is not the kind of book I want on my bookshelf.” I really hated what I was reading. I mean, it started out with a prologue that I actually really liked. It was short and sparse on detail, and set up the backgrounds of the two main characters Wilona and Egan (Both of whom are lone survivors – WIlona’s village was wiped out by a plague and Egan was on a ship that capsized and only he made it to shore) effectively. And then the story begins years later, Wilona is in a new village where the Seithkona (a healer/translator of the gods) took her under her wing, and Egan made it to a Christian monastery. Both, however, live as outsiders and aren’t much liked by the authority figures.
The first chapter is Wilona’s introduction, and where I almost closed the book to set it aside into the SHUNNED PILE. It was a toughie – the chapter was full of very unnecessary descriptive language, bogging down the actual presentation of the setting and story. I’ve always been against that style of writing, the style where the author spends two pages describing a character’s dress and then four more the facial features. <— that’s a hyperbole, I’ve not seen an author ACTUALLY spend that much time on something so petty, but the gist is don’t overload with details. Nobody remembers that shit. Whenever I hit those sections, my eyes glaze over, and I’ll literally just skip to the next page without reading because, usually, those sections of novels have nothing important in them whatsoever except declaring LOOK AT ME I’VE BUILT MY WORLD SO SPECTACULARLY WITH SO MUCH DETAIL. So I skip the page and start glazing over the next page, and the next, until I catch a line of dialogue or a sentence that sticks out as story-relevant. Anyways, that wasn’t the entire reason I disliked what was going on. Sure, there was too much description, but also a lot of the descriptions were so… amateur and just weird. Let me quote two particularly bad ones:
“A fierce intelligence lies behind those eyes, and under their scrutiny more than one strong man has been reduced to admitting a lie.”
Lines like these make no sense. What does a “fierce intelligence” lying behind eyes even look like? I get that the author is trying to say the woman being described here is fierce and unyielding and gets what she wants, probably carries a certain authority, but there are so many better ways to get that message across, which the author does later on. She gets that message across in a really good way after getting it across a really bad way first. There’s a scene later where the lord of the village or town or whatever the fuck they live in – the man whose word is law for everybody living there and he could have anybody executed at the snap of his fingers – grabs the described woman around the throat. He’s choking her because she’s responsible for making sure his wife gives birth with both the baby and the wife surviving, and he’s drunk and angry that it’s taking so long. In that scene, despite having the most powerful man in the town holding her against a wall, crushing her larynx, the woman keeps her head up and her eyes looking straight into the Lord’s eyes. She doesn’t show fear, she doesn’t cave, she doesn’t challenge the Lord but she also doesn’t show herself as entirely meek and subservient. And that scene shows her the fortitude of her spirit, among a lot of other nuanced detail about the village, FAR MORE memorably and effectively than that stupid line posted above.
“…her hair the colour of a ginger cat.”
And this one. Seriously? This one just seems utterly silly. It’s one of those lines where you can tell the author was trying way too hard to sound poetic or some shit. It’s one of those sentences which, although not entirely terrible, just makes me ask WHY? It’s a matter of semantics: what’s the difference between hair being ginger, and hair being the colour of a ginger cat? Isn’t it the same? The only reason I’d imagine she’d include the extraneous detail of the cat was to evoke that the hair also had the aesthetic qualities of cat fur (if the real reason wasn’t just to come off as a good writer). If she wanted to evoke other qualities of cat fur, why not just say “her hair like a ginger cat,” or something like that. Why specify the colour only? One of the mantras preached about good writing is “concrete sensory details,” and I think this is an example of the author trying to write to serve the checklist of “including concrete sensory details” instead of writing to serve the story at hand. Putting in “ginger cat” is more of a concrete sensory detail, appealing to vision, because it puts an image of an orange cat in your head, and not just orange, but it’s a completely UNNECESSARY orange cat that doesn’t serve the story. It’s a misinterpretation of that “checklist of good writing”. Throwing in random details willy nilly doesn’t add to the story, it detracts. If you’re going to evoke the ginger cat, then you want to evoke as many qualities of it as possible, not just the colour, because, like, a ginger cat is different from human ginger hair. The cat is entirely arbitrary. The backbone of good writing is evoking as much as possible in as few details necessary. By specifying ginger cat instead of just ginger, while focusing on the colour, you’re already using more words to evoke the exact same amounts of meaning. And thought this is such a small phrase, such a miniscule portion of the entire book, it’s sentences like those, especially in the beginning, that indicate what the rest of the book’s writing quality will be like.
I hated that first chapter, and if not for my neurotic need to actually read it because I spent money on it, I would have stopped there, but I carried on. And I’m glad I did because I ended up really enjoying the rest of the book.
First chapter aside, the book rarely throws details down your throat by the fistful afterwards. The writing gets better and actually serves the story more than the artificial facade of “good writing.” Wilona, as a Seithkona, does hallucinogens to have visions from the gods, and all the vision sequences were deftly written with utterly beautiful imagery. The characters felt real, their actions justified, and the relationships made sense.
The overall story becomes a battle of culture and religion. Christianity is spreading, and Egan is assigned as the monk to watch over the conversion of the village that Wilona lives in. The main conflict is between Wilona adamantly defying the new religion and sticking to what she knows, while the entire village pressures her to change. After all, the Lord of the village converted and ordered everyone to convert. Egan tries very hard to ministrate the people of the village, and especially Wilona. Yet, despite her defiance of Christianity, Egan admires Wilona and holds faith she will convert eventually. While Egan and Wilona are especially devout to their respective religions, they do look past those differences and coexist somewhat.
After the first chapter it was hard to stop reading. Occasionally the writing dipped down into Serial-Romance writing, which wasn’t the greatest aspect of the novel, but those sections were short and not too often.
Overall, I’d recommend this book to any hist fic fans out there. It’s probably not entirely historically accurate (I wouldn’t know, I don’t know shit about the history of 7th century northumbria). But… whatever.
Thanks for reading 🙂