Published April 2018
*Review by Alexa*
The ancient land of Éirinn is mired in war. Ciara, Princess of Mide, has never known a time when Éirinn’s kingdoms were not battling for power, or Northmen were not plundering their shores.
The people of Mide have thankfully always been safe because of Ciara’s unearthly ability to control her enemies’ minds and actions. But lately, a mysterious crow has been appearing to Ciara, whispering warnings of an even darker threat. Although her clansmen dismiss her visions as pagan nonsense, Ciara fears this coming evil will destroy not just Éirinn, but the entire world.
Then the crow leads Ciara to Leif, a young Northman leader. Leif should be Ciara’s enemy, but when Ciara discovers that he, too, shares her prophetic visions, she knows he’s something more. Leif is mounting an impressive army, and with Ciara’s strength in battle the two might have a chance to save their world.
With evil rising around them, they’ll do what it takes to defend the land they love…even if it means making the greatest sacrifice of all.
Sometimes YA fantasy—and I say this with total love in my heart—is not good. It’s derivative and poorly conceived with weak characters and subpar world building. In other words, it feels juvenile and pandering. Adult fantasy—again, said with total love—is, quite frankly, usually pretty poor too. Adult fantasy typically has better world building with the concepts and characters more fleshed out, but it usually takes itself much too seriously, includes too many allegories, too much mythology, and too much damsel in distress bullshit. Look, I get it: fantasy is hard. You have to walk an extremely fine line between the magical and the mundane, and you somehow have to convince your reader to invest in your characters while buying into your concept. It’s an awful lot to expect from a book, and it’s why so many fantasy stories—YA and Adult—end up being pretty crappy and forgettable.
Needless to say, I did not have high hopes for Beyond A Darkened Shore. The blurb sounded right up my ally, but that usually means I end up disappointed (as you all know so well at this point). So imagine my absolute delight when I discovered that this relatively un-hyped book is freaking wonderful. This story walks that extremely fine fantasy line like a twinkling tightrope walker on a Saturday night. It’s a YA fantasy that feels like an old school adult fantasy. What does that mean exactly? It means a fantastic concept that’s well thought out with loveable characters and relevant themes, but without the patronizing tone of YA or the ego stroking of adult. It’s a rare find indeed, and I Loved It.
In all the world, there are only two strong enough. One born for it, the other through great sacrifice.
Ok, let’s get down to business and break this thing down. First of all, the setting is great. The story is set mostly in 1035 CE* Ireland, and from the beginning it is obvious that Leake has taken pains to get the setting right. The world is historically and anthropologically accurate giving a solid base of reality for the fantastical to be built on*. Leake describes her characters’ world by painting an atmospheric picture that is hauntingly beautiful and dark. The myths and lore that are associated with the two presented populations (Celtic and Norse) are as historically accurate as the actual places, particularly the ways in which the ‘new’ religion of Christianity is being incorporated into the old ways while also being at odds with them. The lore is the bedrock of the tale, but it is incorporated in such a deft way that it enhances the story rather than engulfing it. I could seriously go on and on about the setting and myths, but I’ll spare you anymore meandering.
There is a greatness in you, Ciara of Mide, beyond even what you have accomplished so far.
Let’s talk characters. The two central protagonists, Ciara (Irish) and Leif (Norse), are fleshed out with good arcs that felt relatable. I truly was rooting for them throughout the story, and now that it’s over I hate that I won’t know anymore about their lives. The MC’s have a purpose, and their actions drive that purpose rather than feeling vague or floundering. Even the ‘enemies into lovers’ trope is handled skillfully so that it feels organic rather than forced (I promise that isn’t a spoiler…the blurb basically spells it out for you). The love is a nice slow burn, and the intimate moments are titillating without veering into romance novel territory (by the way, Leif is a sexy beast of a man). Unfortunately, Ciara and Leif aren’t perfect, and the only negatives that I found with the story rest with them. Ciara can get a bit annoying and over dramatic (seriously, what does Leif have to do to convince you he isn’t an enemy), and Leif comes across as a little too earnest and overprotective (dude, she’s stronger than you, back off). Thankfully, the irritants are relatively minor in the greater story and don’t distract too much. One more small note about the characters, it is explained that Ciara has had to train and work hard to harness her power, and I appreciate that in a story. One of my biggest pet peeves with fantasy in general comes from a character suddenly having this insane power that they can use perfectly from the start. Also, while I love seeing badass magical ladies, I would like to see a story where the male lead has the crazy magical ability and the female has the crazy strength. It would just be a nice change of pace and something I haven’t read before (if you have then shoot me a recommendation!).
Ok all; we’re in the home stretch now.
Darkness came in many forms, and it was wrong to think that any being was beyond redemption.
The last thing I want to mention are the themes within the story. I won’t go into specifics (trying to keep it spoiler free for ya), but I will say that the two premises that really stuck out were done rather well, and Leake is able to get her point across without being preachy. The story is littered with allusions to the ways in which society and religion treat/react to powerful women. Even though the story is set nearly a thousand years ago, that specific point feels incredibly relevant today (anyone up for smashing the patriarchy?). The second theme hits you a little more over the head, but it’s such an important take away for readers that I think that can be forgiven. The awareness of your enemy as being human and having justifications for their actions just like you—no one is the villain of their own story— while overcoming prejudice and preconceived notions is arguably the reason for the story and something that I think we would all do well to remember.
If you can’t tell already, then let me spell it out for you: this is a great fantasy read, and one I would highly recommend. The pacing is good, the ending is satisfying (it’s a stand alone, so no cliffhanger here), the battle scenes are just gory enough, and the love is just fuzzy enough. This is a tale of war and understanding that’s riddled with savagery, nightmarish creatures, beauty, and love. It’s an all-encompassing journey that deserves so much more attention than it is receiving. I will keep an eye out for more of Ms. Leakes’ work in the future, and will be keeping my fingers crossed that she will visit these characters and their world again.
Now, go out immediately and read this book, and then tell me what you think. No, really, go now. I’ll wait.
*Confused by the CE? It means the same thing as AD; however, CE is what anthropologists and historians are now deeming as more accurate and inclusive, so that is what I’ve chosen to use here (BCE = Before Common Era/used to be BC…CE = Common Era/used to be AD)
*There are a ton of difficult to pronounce words/names in this book, but Leakes has graciously supplied a glossary to define their meanings as well as how to pronounce them. She has also supplied a myth cheat sheet to help the reader keep everything straight. Don’t be like me and spend time googling all of this only to discover the cheat sheets when you’re done reading *slaps forehead.