If you are afraid of the dark, what’s the dark afraid of? The answer lies in Knights of the Borrowed Dark, the first book by the impressively ginger-bearded Irish author Dave Rudden. I expected a lot from it – if an unknown twenty-something gets a full trilogy of book and film rights snapped up it had better be special. As someone with a steely core of cynicism I expected to be disappointed – but I was hooked from the beginning. How’s this for an opening sentence? “Looking back, it had been a mistake to fill the orphanage with books”.
Denizen Hardwick is an orphan living in Crosscaper, a rainswept windswept fortress on the edge of the sea. He is a sardonic wee soul, the only one who doesn’t read the donated books threadbare expecting his own Cinderella moment. Sure, in storybooks orphans are rescued from drudgery when they discover they are a wizard or a warrior or a stolen prince. But this is real life – orphans are just kids without parents who rely on philanthropy and are hidden away from society. Unfortunately for Denizen – real life is not what he thought it was. Shortly after his thirteenth birthday, he is summoned to an embassy-like residence on Seraphim Row, to meet an aunt he never knew existed. There he learns that there are whole other worlds in the shadows, that there are monsters, and that the only thing keeping them at bay is an ancient order of knights with special powers that come at a terrible cost. Powers he has inherited. From a family he never knew he had.
Which was worse – a whole new world coming out of nowhere to derail your future or never having a choice of a future in the first place?
I don’t want to tell to too much plot wise as it’s a rattling good read and you should go along for the ride. Yeah we have ALL the tropes here, but we are encouraged to cock a wry eyebrow at them – think Joss Whedon and Neil Gaiman and you see where Rudden is coming from. There are mythic monsters taking forms out of the shadows, and there are just plain nasty ones. The Clockwork Three are brilliant baddies that bring genuine darkness – wait until you read why ‘the Opening Boy’ is part of the trio and your blood will run cold. Rudden skilfully involves the reader in the creation of the monsters through Denizen’s struggle to describe to us the first shadow monster he meets, which looks “as if you’d been asked to sculpt an angel, but you’d never seen one before, and there were people to tell you what one looked like… but they hated you”.
I can’t help but mention how weirdly exciting I found it when places I recognised were featured. KOTBD is an authentic self-contained fantasy world, and I fell into it so immediately I didn’t notice it was set in contemporary Ireland at first. I only realised Crosscaper was on Achill Island when Keem Bay was mentioned. I nearly lost my reason whenever we left the ‘magic’ of Seraphim Row behind and walked in Stephen’s Green, or strolled through the Docklands… “Dublin smelled like salt and smoke, and the Samuel Beckett Bridge rose like a harp for the fingers of a giant” Yeah it did! *wipes patriotic tear*
I would have liked more of Denizen’s best friend Simon and far less of Blandy McToken Girl Abigail, but as a whole I loved this and feel the need to foist it upon younglings immediately. KOTBD is ostensibly for the 8-12ish age bracket, but as C.S. Lewis would have it “a children’s story which is only enjoyed by children is a bad children’s story”. This is a very good children’s story, and you should read it now so you can be unbearably smug that you were an early adopter when it becomes massively popular*.
*I have a first edition Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone I was raving about in 1997, I know what I am talking about here!
Knights of the Borrowed Dark is published by Penguin Random House. I received a copy of this book in return for an impartial review.