There are times, as I read a synopsis, when my “book radar” pings a bit louder than in other instances, so that I’ve learned to pay attention to that kind of signal because it usually leads me to great discoveries. Darkwalker, an intriguing debut novel, was indeed such a case.
Nicolas Lenoir used to be a brilliant police inspector, one of those around whom legends are built, but now he’s both disillusioned and uncaring: on one side he cannot summon the old passion for his work anymore, on the other he’s haunted by old nightmares that have far more substance than simple dream stuff, and threaten his very life. Even a series of gruesome grave profanations fails to raise his interest, until one of his informants, a young street urchin, is kidnapped and Lenoir finally seems to wake up, throwing himself into a hair-raising chase that will force him to face his fears head on.
E.L. Tettensor paints a very interesting world here, since the flavor is that of 19th Century England, but the setting is quite original: the Five Villages sport many of the features one would expect of Victorian London, even though they’re set in a far more rural context; the class divisions are quite marked and there are clear indications of social injustice, though the author treats that with a very light, non-preaching hand; the background scenes of everyday life are painted in vivid detail and made me feel the reality of this world in an effortless way. What makes a substantial difference here is the introduction of the Adali, a nomadic people organized into tribes, whose culture is explored at great length: they are the object of general scorn and suspicion, and the preferred target for the populace’s malcontent whenever a scapegoat is needed. The author blended very well the various notions and discoveries about the Adali into the narrative, adding some magic elements in an organic and satisfying way that is one of the novel’s main strengths.
The characters are the driving force of the story, though, starting with the protagonist Nicolas Lenoir: I was surprised at the level of interest I could summon for a character that is at first presented in a very negative light, since Lenoir is jaded, arrogant and distant, and makes no effort to hide it. I think this was a bold move from Ms. Tettensor, to present such an unlikely “hero” at first, adding details along the road and giving her readers a different understanding of the character only when the story is well underway. A bold move, but a winning one as far as I’m concerned, because despite that negative first impression there were some subtle hints that kept me reading and that paid handsomely in the end. The roots of Lenoir’s detachment reach far into his past, when he barely escaped a frightening creature of darkness bent on destroying him: the patches of necrotic flesh on his arm, resulting from contact with the creature’s deadly whip, are a constant reminder of that fateful night and of the hopelessness of the situation, because he knows the Darkwalker will find him eventually and exact its vengeance for the crime against the dead Lenoir is guilty of. Not much is explained about this, and hopefully it will in the next books (another feature I enjoyed, because some mysteries must remain unsolved…) but it showcases the inspector’s character quite well, and if it doesn’t effect a complete change in attitude, it highlights parts of his psychological makeup in interesting ways, filling out his personality and offering a deeper view into what makes him the person he is.
The Darkwalker itself is a fascinating creature: tasked (or condemned?) to avenge crimes committed against the dead, it sees through their eyes the faces of the perpetrators and marks them for punishment, and death. In the exchanges with Lenoir, there are hints about the creature’s possible lack of will, because it sometimes refers to an external directive, as if the shadowy, green-eyed being were nothing but a instrument carrying out someone (or something) else’s directives. There is a mixture of relentlessness and matter-of-factness in this being that is both intriguing and frightening, and the swift, almost subliminal flashes of long-forgotten humanity that sometimes show through add to the fascinating mixture in a major way.
Sergeant Kody, Lenoir’s deputy, is another interesting figure: a young man attracted by the inspector’s aura of brilliance, only to suffer from severe disappointment when he realizes his idol has clay feet and the clay is cracked in too many places. There is little room in the fast pace of the story to allow for much development of Kody’s character and for the tense relationship between the two men – the disillusioned veteran and the junior officer still animated by the sacred fire – so I hope that the following novels will find more room for what promises to be an intriguing personal dynamic.
The secondary character that literally stole my heart, however, is Zach, the orphan, street urchin and sometimes informer who attaches himself to Lenoir and by association manages to bring forth the inspector’s better instincts. Children are a tricky subject to handle, since they can come across as overly cute or just annoying, but that’s not the case here, because Zach is such a perfect, successful blend of wounded innocence and street wisdom that he endeared himself to me from the very start and often stole the scene with his quiet intensity.
A captivating atmosphere, a world that is at the same time familiar and unexpected, solid characters and a fascinating story that grows in intensity until the breath-taking climax – not to mention a promise of more to come: this book possesses all the elements to be the engaging start to a great new series. I’m quite looking forward to the next one…
My Rating: 8,5/10