Title: Down Comes the Night
Author: Allison Saft
Genre: Young Adult/Fantasy
Version: ARC – ebook
Page Count: 400
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Add To-Read on: GoodReads, StoryGraph
Notable Notables: Bisexual main character, lesbian side character
Recommended Readers: Those looking for a standalone, atmospheric fantasy
CAWPILE Rating: 6.57
Star Rating: ★★★☆☆
Thank you, to NetGalley and the publisher, for offering this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Down Comes the Night is Allison Saft’s debut novel, an original YA fantasy that pits logic and ruthlessness against emotion and forgiveness—and explores where the line is drawn between the two. What choices render you into your best self? Following the duty you’ve pledged yourself to or following your instincts to do what is right?
These are choices that Wren Southerland wrestles with daily in the country of Danu. A solider with healing magic in the Queen’s Guard, she is torn by the empathy she feels even toward enemy soldiers. Not even her best friend and commanding officer, Una Dryden, can save Wren once she makes a reckless mistake healing a captured enemy. Dismissed from the guard, Wren is determined to get back into the Queen’s good graces and return to the side of the girl she loves, even if Una can never truly reciprocate her affections. Wren sees her chance for redemption when an invitation arrives from a lord in a neutral country promising to lend his support to the Queen in exchange for curing his favorite servant from a mysterious illness plaguing his estate. However, Colwick Hall holds more mysteries than a disease that can kill, including that Wren’s patient isn’t a servant at all but Hal Cavendish, the Reaper of Vesria and Danu’s public enemy number one. As the estate and its eccentric host, Lord Lowry, turn more ominous, Wren and Hal will have to work together to solve the sinister forces at work even at the risk of committing treason, if their feelings for each other don’t render them traitors first.
The first third of Down Comes the Night was so intriguing. I adored Wren and how much she struggled with her emotions, always feeling too much but being forced to express so little for fear of various repercussions. As someone who tends to smother my own emotions unless I’m around certain people, her struggles resonated with me. The writing struck a beautiful balance of Wren experiencing her emotions, having reckless ideas because of them, and then showing how she actually reacts in a more logical outcome once she’s worked through them. Her resentment towards Queen Isabel, her aunt, conflicted tragically with her desperation to be loved and accepted by her. It’s that good familial drama that I never get enough of. I also loved how Wren’s bisexuality was handled, how doomed her romantic feelings for Una were yet how deeply she yearned for her anyway—and how willing she was to set everything aside if it meant remaining best friends until she couldn’t anymore.
Una herself cut a striking figure, the severe logos to Wren’s bleeding pathos. While I do feel that Una’s lesbianism could’ve been shown in deeper ways outside of Wren, I still appreciated how much Una wavered for no one else except Wren. I believed in their friendship, in the complicated good parts and the messy bad parts of it. How Una did love Wren but also wanted her to fit inside a box she wasn’t suited for. I believed in Una’s dedication to uphold duty and honor and how that conflicted with Wren’s nature, how badly Wren wanted to change for her but ultimately knew deep down she never could. Then there’s the delicious bit that Isabel prefers Una and is proud of her in all the ways that Wren craves the same acknowledgement.
Aside from these intricate interpersonal relationships, Saft also writes beautiful, atmospheric settings and descriptions. I could see Danu’s filthy streets, feel the winter’s cold winds and stirred-up snowdrifts, and shudder at the dilapidated darkness of Colwick Hall. I could always envision the characters’ surroundings and what they were doing, wearing, and interacting with. At no point did a scene ever feel static. Saft also managed to convey in Wren grief for a character you as a reader never meet, poignantly demonstrating how deeply feelings for a loved run can run and how suddenly grief can sneak up on you as the little things in life remind you of them. Normally, I wouldn’t care about this kind of character, but Saft ensured I did because his effect on Wren truly mattered as part of her own character.
I especially appreciated all the usage of medical language and scientific descriptions for Wren’s healing powers. The writing never glossed over the details if she was setting a bone or listening to someone’s lungs, and the actual process of healing was never waved away as just being “because magic.” The magic system was intimately tied to medical science and anatomy, and I loved that.
Yet despite all these praises, I only awarded Down Comes the Night three stars when at the start I was so certain it’d be an easy, instant favorite. That’s because when I reached about halfway through, I realized I was bored and the story had lost its steam. Sadly, it’s because of how Hal was written along with his romance with Wren, which I had deeply wanted to root for. In short, he and the romance were boring.
Theirs was an enemies-to-lovers romance in name only. Despite Hal being dubbed the Reaper of Vesria, known for his magical ability to kill someone using eye contact alone, he is already deeply repentant of being a war criminal and wants to do better when Wren meets him. Besides the understandable suspicions of two enemy soldiers meeting officially for the first time, Wren and Hal don’t do anything horrible to each other or were all that combative at all besides the initial biting meeting. In fact, any viciousness or betrayal comes solely from Wren’s side, and it is quickly resolved and forgotten about once it truly sinks into her how secretly good and sad and funny Hal has been the entire time.
That’s not enemies-to-lovers, folks. This could’ve been so much better, so much more interesting, if Hal also needed to grow beyond learning how to be vulnerable to one person. He could’ve done that while also being a terrible patient and largely unrepentant of his crimes, a real bastard that Wren could challenge at every point. And she would’ve done so. My girl is strong and reckless enough to do it.
In the end, Hal was just a beautiful, sad, stoic nineteen-year-old boy whose own horrific power didn’t work for the majority of the book. I kept waiting on him to pose any kind of threat or actually do something besides being sick and frail and withdrawn in bed. Rather than read any real conflict between him and Wren, I had to sit through conversations of these two nitwits realizing the propaganda their countries fed them about each other was mostly lies, like come on. Y’all are smarter than this and definitely should’ve been more exciting. The real villain of the story, meanwhile, was so transparent from the start that I got no excitement there, either.
In fact, the book struggles often with its transparency. It’s always painfully clear where the story is going, so it ultimately defeats any sense of mystery it tries to build. From the romance to character motivations to plot, depth is tragically missing. There’s also a character named Hannah who is completely forgotten about once the mystery concludes and Wren permanently leaves Colwick Hall, and part of me still can’t believe she was just dropped like that.
The book also isn’t gothic enough to be called a gothic romance; Colwick Hall as a setting was not enough by itself. Furthermore, its tagline “Love makes monsters of us all”—which is extremely gothic horror/romance—couldn’t be further from what the book gives you. At no point were Hal and Wren pushed towards true monstrosity for loving each other, not even in the finale. Instead, it was all quite, dare I say, lukewarm and business-as-usual. I’d be much more prone to assigning that tagline to Wren and Una since they had actual conflict and hurt feelings to overcome.
For the majority of the book, I loved Wren anyway—I cannot stress that enough—but I rolled my eyes at Wren taking on a “If I kill this terrible villain, then I’m just as bad as them! Mercy is the harder choice!” stance when it was absolutely justifiable and in self-defense. And I’m a lover of nasty villains if written well, by the way. This is also where the book’s angle on forgiveness falls very flat. “I’m not going to ever forgive you for what you’ve done,” Wren tells the villain, but she also decides she’s not going to stop them from performing more blatant, unrepentant evil they are hellbent on doing because killing them would just be enjoyable vengeance instead of, y’know, life-saving. At some point, the cycle of violence has to stop, so it’ll stop with her making the choice to not kill them… but she’s not going to forgive them. And she’s going to let them get away. Wren, you do have to pick one here, I’m afraid. I’m so tired of authors not letting their (mostly female) characters commit a murder like doing so is somehow going to taint them beyond repair or completely invalidate them as a kind-hearted person. This moment completely took me out of the book and affected my rating because of it.
But most of all, I can’t get over the fact that Saft dedicated the book to Masashi Kishimoto, the creator of Naruto, in her acknowledgments, which isn’t a big deal. I love me some Naruto. Reading this, however, caused my brain to unlock the realization that what I’d just finished reading with Wren and Hal was a dull Sakura/Itachi fanfic. (Not that this book was bad; it’s its own thing. Hal is just the most boring version of Itachi Uchiha I’ve ever read, the fola was chakra, Isabel was Tsunade, Una was Inu, and now that I see all these things, I cannot unsee them. Believe it!)
Even so, Saft certainly has a lyrical yet meaningful way with words overall. As a debut, Down Comes the Night has its ups and downs, but I’m deeply interested to see what Saft will produce in the future and hope her talent keeps shining through as she hones her craft. She’s definitely an author I will watch for from now on.