Book Reviews

Book Review: One Dark Window by Rachel Gillig

I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about this dark romantic fantasy but I ended up having a good time!

Book: One Dark Window by Rachel Gillig

Publication date: 26th July 2022

Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by Orbit Books. All opinions my own.

Content warnings: violence, injury, and death; ableism/magic as analogue for disability/illness; possession/mind control magic.

Elspeth Spindle needs more than luck to stay safe in the eerie, mist-locked kingdom of Blunder—she needs a monster. She calls him the Nightmare, an ancient, mercurial spirit trapped in her head. He protects her. He keeps her secrets.

But nothing comes for free, especially magic.

When Elspeth meets a mysterious highwayman on the forest road, her life takes a drastic turn. Thrust into a world of shadow and deception, she joins a dangerous quest to cure Blunder from the dark magic infecting it. And the highwayman? He just so happens to be the King’s nephew, Captain of the most dangerous men in Blunder…and guilty of high treason.

Together they must gather twelve Providence Cards—the keys to the cure. But as the stakes heighten and their undeniable attraction intensifies, Elspeth is forced to face her darkest secret yet: the Nightmare is slowly taking over her mind. And she might not be able to stop him.

On starting this book, I was pretty sure it was going to be a quick DNF for me. I rolled my eyes at our special heroine trying to protect her magical secret, rolled them harder at the doggerel magic poetry that opens each chapter, and almost lost them entirely at the extremely corny introduction of the love interest (his name is Ravyn Yew so you can tell he’s bad news, in case that flashes anyone else back to their first sixth form novel). However, I decided to roll with it, and you know what? I actually had a lot of fun with this book!

I will say that this is almost self-consciously melodramatic in both its plot and its writing – there’s a fog-wrapped forest, a corrupt court, bad boy princes and innocent maidens, that sort of thing. It’s being sold as gothic but I feel like it’s part of its own little niche of dark romantic fantasy that’s getting described as ‘lush’ and ‘atmospheric’; if you’ve read For the Wolf or Malice, that’s the kind of style I mean. Orbit don’t publish things as YA, but I feel like this will resonate squarely with those moving on from YA, and wouldn’t be out of place on a YA shelf.

I had a few problems with the technical side of the writing (most annoyingly the author’s use of ‘be wary the object’ as a phrase repeated hundreds of times through the book, which just feels grammatically awkward to me (surely ‘beware the X’ or ‘be wary of it’??) but ultimately it’s passable, if as I say self-consciously ornate. It reminded me quite a lot of The Wolf and the Woodsman (reviewed here) with its mix of folkloric forest and court scenes, but less angsty and intense – it’s also got a romance that will be familiar to any lover of YA fantasy, with an aloof bad boy for our heroine to inexplicably hate at first sight and then eventually fall for. My only other quibble is that there didn’t seem to be any decent female characters apart from the heroine (in the sense of behaviour/morals) – every other woman is ultimately a bitch, and she has no friends or supportive women around her, just a bunch of dramatic princes, so if you’re looking for female friendship, look elsewhere.

The best thing to do with this book is to lean into the spirit of it and just enjoy it in all its overt dark magic, sixth-formy posturing! The ostensible main plot (collect all of a set of magic cards for great power) is really not the focus, the romance and the atmosphere are, and that’s pretty good fun if you let yourself relax into it. The last 60 or so pages of the book seem to get things moving onto a more plot-heavy trajectory, so I’m intrigued to see where things go next. This review probably sounds fairly negative, but it’s hard to really qualify why I liked this so much – it doesn’t tick many of my boxes, but it was just a nicely entertaining read, and if you can deal with the caveats above, I do recommend giving it a try! Four out of five cats.

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