Review: Down Comes the Night by Allison Saft



He saw the darkness in her magic. She saw the magic in his darkness.

Wren Southerland’s reckless use of magic has cost her everything: she’s been dismissed from the Queen’s Guard and separated from her best friend—the girl she loves. So when a letter arrives from a reclusive lord, asking Wren to come to his estate, Colwick Hall, to cure his servant from a mysterious illness, she seizes her chance to redeem herself.

The mansion is crumbling, icy winds haunt the caved-in halls, and her eccentric host forbids her from leaving her room after dark. Worse, Wren’s patient isn’t a servant at all but Hal Cavendish, the infamous Reaper of Vesria and her kingdom’s sworn enemy. Hal also came to Colwick Hall for redemption, but the secrets in the estate may lead to both of their deaths.

With sinister forces at work, Wren and Hal realize they’ll have to join together if they have any hope of saving their kingdoms. But as Wren circles closer to the nefarious truth behind Hal’s illness, they realize they have no escape from the monsters within the mansion. All they have is each other, and a startling desire that could be their downfall.

Allison Saft’s Down Comes the Night is a snow-drenched romantic fantasy that keeps you racing through the pages long into the night.

Love makes monsters of us all.

                 The premise of Down Comes the Night struck me with a deep allure: two enemies, standing on opposite sides of an endless war, find themselves miserably trapped, like a pair of pinned moths, with unknowable terrors inside an estate lurking deep in the dark fog-wreathed mountains, and like any trapped thing, they must scrape up answers and fight to the bitter end, together. 

                  Before I discuss the novel’s merits, I want to get a few personal quibbles out of the way first: Saft writes superbly, though her long, over-stretched descriptions occasionally bloat the prose, and there are moments when one might crave a little more restraint. The story also gropes unsuccessfully for the Gothic note, and I found myself longing for the kind of extravagantly evocative atmosphere that Moreno-Garcia crafts so effectively in her gothic charmer, Mexican Gothic, for example—the kind that tingles on your skin and floods your senses and presses around you like it has physical weight. This latter note I blame partly on my own expectations which were exacerbated by the marketing around the book.

                  That said, the novel luckily thrives in its themes of heritage and war and power (which are sinuous and protean and affecting) and the changing relationship between Wren and Hal (which walks a knife-edge between animus and amity, and builds in maliciously slow increments of bruised and insulted longing), and the two far outshine the sparsely decorated setup and the anemic predictability of the storyline.

                  Down Comes the Night probes, ceaselessly and affectingly, at the nature of what it means to inherit a story that was etched in blood and choked with corpses, and to splinter yourself on the umbrageous legacies of growing up weaned on that fierce poison and bottomless hatred. “War makes monsters out of children,” writes Saft, they live shoulder to shoulder with it and thus grow immune to its atrocities. Wren and Hal, both barely having finished being a child, were taught to dream in the language of monstrousness.

                  Wren, who was so uncomfortably aware of her softness in an almost abject way, felt the absence of that monstrousness within her like a hunger, like a deficiency, a mistake in need of correcting. Her heart had no dimension for violence, and she never stopped knowing it; not while words like “weak” and “emotional” were constantly thrown like sharp rocks at her, and she carried them in her arms, a reminder that she was not—and will never be—enough. Hal, on the other hand, had a history drenched in boiling gouts of blood, and it had earned him a horrible renown: he was “the Reaper of Vesria”, and death had enfolded him like a cloak for so very long he barely felt it anymore. Monstrousness was a shape Hal had been poured into—his loneliness and desperation and trauma conspiring to make him as good as clay in its hands—and he resigned himself to being subsumed. In this, Hal offers an interesting counterpart to Wren: while Wren sought to flay any softness from her like fascia from muscle, convinced she would always be incomplete in its presence, an unfinished jigsaw of a person, Hal believed himself both incapable and unworthy of softness even as he sought its respite, the same way one dreams of fire’s warmth in the teeth of winter.

                  Hal’s hope for salvation had died quietly, without a whimper, and Wren’s grasping for a belonging that doesn’t size and measure before it finds you worthy is still gasping for oxygen, but both strike to life like flint when Hal and Wren meet each other, and it is this collision which constitutes the novel’s most rewarding experience. Hal and Wren spend most of the novel slowly and delicately lining up the sharp edges of their differences in the fragile hope of finding a match. They look at each other and see something infinitely human, something which slowly hacks at the long-growing tree of their prejudices, and carves a space where mutual understanding—and eventually, love—might grow, opening up like a flower blooming.

                  Therein lies the true joy of this novel: the author sees her characters in all their complicated glory and holds them so gently, but she also holds them accountable—for their wishes and choices and promises—and her beautifully thoughtful and clear-eyed exploration ultimately spindles into what Emily Dickinson had called “the thing with feathers”: hope.  

CWs: gore, murder, implied torture, descriptions of surgical procedures.

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