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Darkborn, by Alison Sinclair

Darkborn, by Alison Sinclair published on

Dr. Balthasar Hearne and his wife Telmaine Hearne are Darkborn, a blind people who are cursed to die if they come into contact with light, and navigate via sonar, which they call “sonning.” Their roughly Victorian-era world is populated half by their own people, and half by the Lightborn, who are vulnerable to darkness in the same way the Darkborn are to light. One night Tercelle Amberley, a woman Balthasar once knew, comes to him about to give birth – and her children, incredibly, are born sighted. Meanwhile, Telmaine meets the battle-scarred, traumatized wizard Ishmael de Studier, and finds for the first time that she may have met someone from whom she can’t hide her darkest secret – that she is a powerful wizard, something shunned in Darkborn society.

The setting of the book was interesting, particularly the strange ways the Darkborn and Lightborn find to communicate. I appreciated that Telmaine, who in this sort of story would usually end up staying at home cheerleading, was by far the most active of the main characters, and the driving force of the action for most of the last part of the book.

I liked the idea of a race of people who using sonar, but had a lot of issues with the execution, when Sinclair made it just a little bit too much like sight. For instance, there’s a scene where one character sonns another character’s face “framed in the open window.” …what, exactly, are all these blind people likely to be framing? It’s nitpicky, yeah, but little details like that make or break a book’s ability to convince you of its world’s reality. I was never convinced of this one.

The characterization suffers a similar problem with consistency – except for me, this one is much worse. Cut for a spoiler: Telmaine and Ishmael find themselves falling in love. The way the two of them and Balthasar react to this does not exactly make a lot of sense.

Ishmael has led a painful life, rejected by his family and by society because of his magical powers, whose pride is entirely dependent on his belief in his own integrity. Telmaine’s fear of rejection of the sort Ishmael has suffered has consumed her life, and she values her position as a proper wife and mother above all other things; and Balthasar (the least-developed of the three) is a shy, emotionally vulnerable person who, from what we see of him, seems to be the passive one in the marriage, dependent on Telmaine to lead their relationship.

For all three of them, this situation should be horrifying. I think that for Telmaine in particular, who has spent her life lying to everyone she loves to maintain her identity as a good society wife, it ought to be literally unthinkable. Yet they’re all peculiarly accepting of it. There are some moments of angst and jealousy, but they’re perfunctory, and in general much too nice – no one ever gets angry. Like the sonar, I don’t buy it.

This is the first in the trilogy, and it ends on basically a very sharp cliffhanger. I’ll read the next book when it comes out, but I’m not optimistic about any book that has this love triangle as the central emotional conflict. I’m almost hoping for a ten-year timeskip to let the kids grow up or something, cliffhanger or no.

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