What an unexpected little book.
I requested this one after only a cursory glance at the description. Based on the standard sleepy-girl-in-a-pretty-dress cover, I was expecting another typical young adult paranormal, complete with impossibly gifted heroine and two swarthy sides to a love triangle. And that’s what Abé gives us…sort of.
I was completely unprepared for the strength of Abé’s writing. Having read a lot of young adult books that mistake conspicuous word choice for depth, it was lovely to read prose that felt unselfconscious in its own beauty. Two pages turned to twenty, and before I knew it I was completely sucked into the story, even if I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on. In an odd way, I count that as one of the book’s strengths; Abé’s worldbuilding isn’t particularly sophisticated, and upon closer scrutiny, it’s like a moth-eaten quilt. You get the feeling that there is a larger rationale connecting all the pieces (likely developed as a backdrop to her previous adult romance series), but the threads that we do have are pretty enough to prop up the weak parts.
The Sweetest Dark by Shana Abé
Perhaps even more surprising than my lack of scorn toward a poorly constructed magical system was my acceptance, even approval, of the “love triangle.” I set that off in quotations because it doesn’t fit the bill, exactly. Lora does develop relationships with two different young men, yet it seems clear to me that she considers only one of these to be romantic. There is no oscillation between options; she makes it clear who she wants early on, and she doesn’t feel guilty about taking what she wants because she never flirts with the alternative. The characters’ understanding of how the relationships stand is fairly universal; though one of the men admits to his strange obsession with Lora, I never got the sense that even he was truly invested in it from a romantic angle. It could be a bit disappointing, then, that I actually would rather have seen these two together in a romantic sense than who she actually ends up with, but to be honest I liked both guys. It’s a rarity in young adult paranormal nowadays, but Abé pulled off the impossible in creating two reasonably well-rounded male characters to root for. What’s more, she didn’t pull back on investing them with faults, though they are subtlely sown. Most importantly, Abé doesn’t try to convince or justify. Her characters are what they are, individually and in relation to each other, and you don’t have to approve of or understand the crazy fated turns that bring them together; you simply have to keep up with them. Regarding Lora’s romantic connection, it’s not epic, but nor is it the saccharine contrived mess that we are usually fed. It’s a dry love, giving only as much as it cares to, existing whether we believe in it or not.
As for Lora…I liked her. She’s snarky. She’s no pushover. She might be crazy, but she doesn’t spend time lamenting the fact. She’s endured some pretty horrible things in her short life, yet we hear only snippets, and those at unexpected points in the narrative. I love that, despite the occasional third-person perspective shifts to the two male characters, the story’s focus on Lora’s narration maintains the aura of an unreliable narrator. From what we see and hear through Lora’s eyes, there are a lot of unbelievable things occurring without much explanation or credence. Lora has thought herself crazy for years; who’s to say that she isn’t? It’s entirely possible that the events of the story are entirely a creation of her own imagination. Abé doesn’t provide us with an easy answer, and while I might be reading into this too much, that’s alright with me. It is, after all, the reader’s prerogative to interpret a story.
Following the ending of The Sweetest Dark, it’s not entirely clear whether Abé intends for there to be a sequel; it might seem odd, but I almost wish there weren’t, despite the melancholy tone that would lend to the story overall. Yet it’s a beautiful melancholy, a sweet ache as can only be accomplished by those surreal, unapologetic stories that are more Grimm than Anderson. Still, I suspect we will see more to come from these characters, though where Abé goes with this story from here is anyone’s guess; at the very least, it’s guaranteed to be a far cry from the standard fare.