Review: The Darkest Hour by M.J. Ryder

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To be brutally honest, I wasn’t a fan of this one. I was optimistic about the novel at first, as I’m a massive fan of the fantasy genre and will give near-enough anything from the genre a go. However, despite my best efforts, I didn’t quite make it to the end of the book.

Typically, books begin in medias res, or ‘in the middle of things’ so that the story has somewhere to go and some origins to stem from. While this is a significant literary device to use, I found Ryder’s novel was in that midpoint of the narrative with little to no context. This effect feels confusing as a reader because I was trying to grasp what was going on while engaging with the new characters I’d only just met. The other consequence of this was that the book then needs to backfill the context on how The Darkest Hour’s world worked later in the narrative, which feels counterproductive.

The main issue with this novel stems from the ‘telling not showing’ problem. An entire chapter is dedicated to Callum, the protagonist’s father, reminiscing about adventures he had in his youth, none of which we get actually to see. As a result, when he reunites with his old friends, the reader feels nothing for them, only knowing them by name from the previous exposition. Instead, a slower and better-paced characterisation would have improved the reader’s empathy with these characters. Callum motives are also somewhat unclear, claiming to care for and worry about his daughter, Phae, but making no active attempts to help her until she goes missing, despite her being severely traumatised at the opening of the novel following her tutor’s death.

Another major problem that I have is the way magic is handled in the novel; there don’t seem to be any rules or restrictions of it. If a character is capable of magic, they’re more or less invincible with no drawbacks. While a big part of Phae’s role is that she doesn’t have full control over her abilities, sometimes this feels like an easy cop-out to explain why she can go from incinerating buildings to being unable to resist an old man dragging her around by the arm.

I think some of these issues also stem from the fact the book is self-published. Some of the grammar was inconsistent, and there are elements an editor would pick up on. It is a shame because there is wasted potential in some of the dialogue and characterisation that, with some guidance, could have been more fully developed.

To me, this book was identifiable as the first work of an author who has a promise for the future. I’ll admit, as, with most debut novels, it needs some work; however, The Darkest Hour has some signs of originality and genuine characterisation. Personally, I found it flawed because while it uses those essential elements of a well-structured narrative, it doesn’t execute them to their full potential. With a few more years of practice and work, I expect Ryder will produce something I look forward to reading. There are a ton of elements in play here that could make a great fantasy novel, but the application of these elements falls decidedly flat.

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