It’s time once again to return to the harrowing realm of middle grade novel reviews with Knights of The Borrowed Dark, the debut from Irish author Dave Rudden that has just enough levels of spookiness to qualify for this year’s Halloween spook-a-thon. I bought it solely because it has a cool title. These are the kinds of carefree things you can do when you have a job.
The setup is that there’s a hidden shadow world that regularly spawns reality-warping creatures called the Tenebrae, which vary in both form and intellect, ranging from animalistic beast-like creatures to frighteningly intelligent simulacrum of human beings. Their sinister machinations for the mortal world are thwarted by the Order of The Borrowed Dark, a secret, centuries-old organization of Knights (capitalised) who inherit a magical connection to the Tenebrae’s shadow dimension from their forebears.
Our protagonist, the amazingly-named Denizen Hardwicke, is thrown into this secret war after a Knight plucks him out of an orphanage (of a sort that hasn’t actually existed in Ireland for decades but we’ll get to that) and takes him off to Dublin to meet his aunt, the ultra-badass leader of the Order’s regional chapter. Meanwhile, his best friend is left behind when a trio of powerful, sadistic Tenebrae invade the orphanage and turn it into their own nightmarish fiefdom on Earth. I assume these two plot strands intersect at some point, although I stopped reading before it happened.
I nearly stopped reading a lot earlier. On page two, in fact, when a character complains about stories where plucky young orphans get whisked away to discover their magical destinies. Unlike this story about a plucky young orphan who gets whisked away to discover his magical destiny, which is different because some of the characters are assholes and it’s slightly more Extreme.
I nearly stopped reading again slightly later on, when one of the Knights makes a big song and dance out of the fact that their powers– which are divided into discrete techniques that are given latin names, and which are performed with the help of specific spoken words– aren’t magic, only for the book to give up shortly afterward and just have the characters call it magic.
In other words, this is another one of those stories: totally bog-standard genre page-turners fluffed up by conspicuous self-awareness and an attempt at being meta.
Despite these brief annoyances, I was actually convinced early on that Knights of The Borrowed Dark was going to be good. In fact, for a chapter or two I thought it was going to be very good. Rudden writes a good fight scene; The setting, while obviously drawing on a host of influences too obvious to bother listing, feels relatively fresh and exciting; And the Tenebrae are genuinely creepy and unsettling. I particularly liked the side-plot about Denizen’s BFF Simon being forced to hide and scavenge for survival in the orphanage after all the other kids have been put into a state of enchanted sleep, which could easily have been spun out into its own novel.
The problem– as so often seems to be the case in books like this–is the main character. Denizen feels like an utter non-entity, defined solely by his anger (directed at his warrior-aunt) at being forced to grow up in an orphanage and his thirst for information about his parents. I didn’t buy either character trait. The book tells us that he has a lot of angst about his circumstances, but it feels perfunctory, as though it’s in the book because that’s the sort of personality that fictional orphans are supposed to have. The dude makes Harry Potter feel like an interesting and three-dimensional character (and on a less snarky note, the evocation of Harry’s longing for his parents in the first book is genuinely light-years ahead of what we get here).
This pretty much blows a hole right through the book, because Denizen becomes that annoying git who all the cooler side characters have to put up with when the story keeps cutting away from the far more interesting Simon to focus on him.
By the way, Simon has a strange scar that he supposedly got during the car crash that killed his parents. Because meta! And cheeky self awareness! And Knowing Deconstructions!
Something else that bugged me, but which is likely not going to be nearly as much of an issue to other people, is the story’s setting. This is an extremely Irish book, grounded utterly in Dublin and the rural west coast that Denizen’s (massively anachronistic) orphanage is located in, but apart from one time where Denizen refers to his mother as “mam”, all of the dialogue feels extremely American, to the point that when the setting was first revealed I did a double-take, having assumed it was meant to be taking place in Colorado or somewhere. It almost makes me wonder if Rudden was asked to make the dialogue more generic to appeal to an international audience, but in that case I wonder why the book is name-dropping the Docklands and the Samuel Beckett Bridge in the apparent expectation that readers will know what they are.
That aside, I don’t know if dropping the irritating self-awareness angle would fix Knights of The Borrowed Dark– Denizen would still be a completely one-note protagonist– but it may have helped ever so slightly. It’s a shame, because there are a lot of pretty cool ideas in here.