I read my first Marcher Lord Press book this week – Jill Williamson’s By Darkness Hid (April 2009), first in the Blood of Kings series. Well, actually I read an Advance Reader Copy (ARC), but I suspect there will be few changes in the finished product. The book is excellent.
The Story. Achan Cham wears the orange shirt that marks him as a stray, as does the brand he bears on his back. For as long as he can remember he’s worked in Lord Nathak’s kitchen under the watchful eye and heavy hand of the cook, but all that changes when Sir Gavin chooses to elevate the boy and make him his squire.
Vrell also wears the orange, but she does so of her own choosing and in the guise of a young boy because she has gone into hiding in order to avoid a marriage neither she nor her duchess mother wishes for her.
Through an unlikely turn of events, Achan’s and Vrell’s paths cross, and they become the targets of greedy, power-hungry men who wish to kidnap and exploit them.
Strengths. By Darkness Hid is a fresh old-style fantasy. The story is captivating and unpredictable, with numerous well-foreshadowed twists. The characters are likable. Their motivations are clear and believable which makes them all the more realistic. I especially thought Jill hit a homerun creating Vrell, a girl masquerading as a boy. The things Vrell did to protect herself, the conscious ways she tried to mimic male behavior and to check her own natural actions and reactions made the character quite engaging.
The fantasy world of Er’Rets comes to life, including the innovative concept of a land divided between light and darkness, literally.
Jill’s writing is strong. She paints scenes using vivid prose so that a reader is transported into the barn of Lord Nathak’s manor or onto the trail through Nahar Forest. She provides lots of tension and suspense, so the story’s pace is fairly fast. There is a good amount of internal as well as external conflict, which makes the story more intriguing.
Weaknesses. There are two things I’d like to see changed, and neither has to do with the actual story. The first is that the back cover copy, at least what appears on the ARC, gives away too much of the story, in my opinion. The thing is, the detail didn’t really make a lot of sense to me when I read it before reading the book. Afterward, I realized how much of the story was given away. But the real point is, I didn’t feel drawn in by the back cover blurb, so it doesn’t feel like a fair representation of the book.
The second thing I’d change would be to add an important caveat: this book is Part One of a continuing story. Yes, there is a measure of closure, but this story is far from over, and I think readers should know going in. I didn’t. What kept me from feeling cheated in the end was the fact that the last twist came so late in the story, I thought at the time there would be no way to tie up all the threads. Consequently I was prepared, and I found the story so satisfying, I couldn’t really be mad about the fact that it would go on. Still, I can see how some readers who expect a true stand-alone might feel undercut when they reach the end, but it’s not the end.
Recommendation. I just may have a new favorite fantasy series. This is my kind of story. For those who are drawn to epic fantasy or classic fantasy, this is a must read. For everyone else, I highly recommend By Darkness Hid.