School is finally out in Washington, DC, a fact I know only by the steep increase in banshee screeches and cannonball tsunamis at the public pools as my friends and I attempt to sun like lizards. The little hellions are entitled to summer celebration; school is a near-universal experience in cringeworthy choices and social ladder survival.
I doubt I’m alone in school recollections snagging on the miserable bits. Most often, I remember a classmate from third grade onward, another strawberry blonde, though named Laura. From the front we looked nothing alike, but on days we both wore ponytails, staff and teacher’s assistants would blame me for Laura’s hallway rowdiness and bullying observed from a distance. By high school, gossip melded the -a and the -en into a Frankenstein Laur-beast.
Maybe for this reason, the folklore around doppelgängers has always fascinated me. Beyond the innocent trickery of twins, doubles may be more insidious than excused absences and twice the adventure. Stumbling across Holly Black’s Book of Night, released in May 2022, I was excited to read a contemporary take on shadowy duplicates.
Thirty-something con artist Charlie Hall bartends at a BDSM club in Western Massachusetts, hoping to turn over a new leaf. And she’s desperate for cash. In addition to paying off medical debt courtesy of a failed con turned gunshot wound, Charlie is trying to fund her younger sister Posey’s first semester at university. Though, Posey prefers to read tarot and practice shadow magic to studying. Vince, Charlie’s boyfriend of several months, lives in their rented house. He’s a breath of fresh air, the opposite of Charlie’s usual sketchy hookups, but that doesn’t mean Vince is without secrets. For one, he won’t share how his shadow was stolen. From shadow parlor gangster Balthazar to local billionaire Lionel Salt murdering his way to power, Black introduces the nefarious players controlling New England’s shadow magic underground.
Though existing for centuries, quickening shadows into magic became public knowledge recently in Charlie’s world. She specializes in stealing books and texts for gloamists, knowing their hunger for lost shadow knowledge fetches a high price, but trouble follows Charlie like a shadow on a cloudless day.
Bartending late one night, Charlie refuses Balthazar’s request to find missing journals of a murdered gloamist leader. As Charlie walks home, she encounters the mutilated corpse of a bar patron, the same man who hours earlier Balthazar accused of lying about a finding rare book: the Liber Noctem. What killed her customer, Paul Ecco, and did he really own the rumored Holy Grail of shadow tomes, one that could pay for Posey’s tuition?
Charlie plans to con a fellow book thief in hopes of stealing either the murdered gloamist’s journals or information on the Liber Noctem’s hiding place. She’s unable to keep her return to crime from Posey and Vince for long. The intended night of the con, an unknown gloamist visits Charlie around the club’s closing. His magic smashes Charlie into the bar, nearly asphyxiating her with shadow. The assault halts, the attacker’s neck snapped, and Charlie realizes she knows the voice and body of her rescuer. It’s Vince.
Who wants the Liber Noctem enough to kill? Why does Vince’s old driver’s license buried in the closet say he’s the long-dead grandson of Lionel Salt? And can Charlie’s shadow, quickening suddenly after the attack, help her find these books?
The Fresh Take
I love discovering origins unlike the mythic retellings I initially learned. From computer game villains (surviving the Merchant League doppelgänger takeover in Baldur’s Gate) to literature and television adaptations (Dopplers in The Witcher), I assumed doppelgänger was synonymous with shapeshifter. In German folklore, however, doppelgängers are apparitions of a living person, a spirit distinct from a ghost. Meeting your wraith-double is a death omen.
In this way, Black’s take aligns with the lore closer than other references pop culture I’ve encountered. Blights, or malicious shadows detached from their humans and free to wreak havoc, are the most feared shadow beings in Charlie’s world. The Liber Noctem is also called the Book of Blights. As Charlie searches, she’s cognizant that the book’s contents could allow a Blight to sustain enough blood, energy, and raw emotion to pass for its former human. An ominous, lifelike, yet not-fully-corporeal double!
Can you recommend stories on doppelgängers, shapeshifters, or other haunted doubles? My nerdy Excel reading tracker tells me I’ve not yet encountered these chilling narratives in flash!
Spookiness Rating: 👻👻👻
Murder, black market shadow dealings, and tomes bursting with magical secrets abound. Yet Book of Night wends through Charlie and Vince’s backstory as framing for supernatural lawlessness of Black’s world building. If anything, Charlie’s mishaps mid-con raised my heartrate more than her brushes with Blights or other shadow magic. With an open-ended conclusion, a sequel digging into the consequences of this burgeoning shadow world would be welcome.
Spiciness Level: 🌶🌶
Running from their pasts, fiercely loyal to their found family, Charlie and Vince have a doomed-love chemistry. Scattered throughout the book are a brief romance scenes, but more is left to the imagination than appears on the page. It’s their heart-warming dynamics, like Vince grocery shopping for Charlie’s favorite cereal, where Black makes you want to root for them.
Lauren Kardos (she/her) writes from Washington, DC, but she’s still breaking up with her hometown in Western Pennsylvania. Her work appears in Emerge Literary Journal, Rejection Letters, The Lumiere Review, and other fine publications. You can find her on Twitter @lkardos.