TL;DR – just buy and read this book already, okay? And when you’re done, let me know so we can enthuse about it together.
Longer version: hoo wee.
Right. So, you know when you’re editing your own work, and you’re getting on fairly well (or, at least, you’re getting on with it) and you come up against a book you’ve been wanting to read for ages? And you crumble in the face of temptation, and you read the long-awaited book?
Well. Normally, that would be okay. But when the book is Dave Rudden’s Knights of the Borrowed Dark, you may just have a problem. Because this book is good. Really, really good. So good that it makes everything else around it seem like dross, much like a thousand-watt bulb will drown out a candle flame. As a result, reading your own work in tandem with it is likely to bring on existential dread.
At least, it did for me.
KOTBD is the story of orphan Denizen Hardwick, who lives in Crosscaper Orphanage on Ireland’s west coast. He and his best mate Simon have lived in the orphanage all their lives, and things are pretty grim – but not, on the whole, as grim as they could be. No, there’s plenty of space for things to get way worse – and that happens around the time Denizen turns thirteen. Firstly, two very weird (and extremely spooky) visitors come calling to Crosscaper looking for him (though they go away empty-handed, at least at first), and secondly he discovers he has an aunt he never knew about, who sends her employee to go and pick him up so they can have a heart-to-heart. Naturally, learning about long-lost family, to an orphan, is a bit of a bittersweet thing; great to have an aunt, but why on earth has she never come forward until now?
It all becomes clear when Denizen is on his way to his aunt’s house in Dublin in the company of Grey, her second-in-command. They’re ambushed on the road by something Denizen can’t find words to describe – a creature made of darkness and debris, so powerful it tears a hole in the fabric of reality in order to try to wipe him out. But Grey fights it off, and after a sugary tea (for the shock), they’re on their way again.
But Grey refuses to answer Denizen’s questions. In fact, Denizen has a bunch of questions, and nobody seems interested in answering them.
In Dublin, Denizen realises his aunt lives in an embassy-style building, though the flag isn’t one he’s familiar with. He meets the members of her household, and he marvels at the weirdness of the place – but all that pales into insignificance when he meets his aunt herself. Easily the most impressive female character I think I’ve ever read, I loved Vivian Hardwick from the second I ‘met’ her, despite her initial coldness towards her nephew. Resplendent and powerful and afraid of nothing, this is a woman I would cheer for (from a safe distance). She is a powerful and accomplished member of an ancient order of warriors who set themselves against the Tenebrae, or the creatures of darkness – and, as Denizen soon learns, the same power of Light is in his veins.
But, every time the power is used, there is a Cost to pay, and Denizen must decide whether he is willing to pay the Cost, take up his mantle as a Knight, and fight alongside his aunt – or whether to learn enough to control his power and stop it hurting him or anyone else, and leave the whole thing behind.
I think you can probably guess what way he decides to go…
This story, in some ways, is full of things I’d seen before (orphans, hidden relatives, secret powers, turning thirteen), but in another way it’s entirely fresh. In Rudden’s hands, all these elements become brand-new, and the book is utterly compelling. Partly this is down to the writing style, which is absolutely wonderful, filled with expertly judged sentences, spot-on imagery, excellent set-pieces and pitch-perfect dialogue, and partly it’s down to the way the elements are spun, and the small touches which Rudden adds to make things new and interesting, as well as the fascinating characters. Each of them is interesting enough to have a book written about them in their own right, and that’s some achievement. I loved the idea of the Cost, and I loved the downright bone-rattlingly scary baddies (The Man in the Waistcoat, the Woman in White, and the Opening Boy), and I loved Grey (oh, how I loved Grey) and – of course – I adored Denizen himself, brave and determined and snarky and devoted to Simon and awkward and inadequate and utterly perfect. The settings, descriptions, pacing, plot, language and characters in this book are just… look. There aren’t enough superlatives, okay? Suffice to say, I found a home for this one on my Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett shelf (no higher honour can be paid to a book in my ownership besides to be placed alongside my Alan Garners and Ursula Le Guins), and I am itching with impatience for the next installment in the trilogy.
Dave Rudden is one of those annoyingly brilliant people, a debut novelist whose work reads like a twenty-year veteran – and he appears to be rather a nice man, to boot. I recommend you follow him on Twitter (@d_ruddenwrites and/or @KOTBDofficial), and I heartily recommend you equip yourself with a copy of Knights of the Borrowed Dark. It is the best book I’ve read in a long time, and it simultaneously gave me the shivers you only get when reading a really excellent piece of literature and the terrors you get when forced to question your own career choices. Don’t read this book if you have any other calls on your time; block off enough hours to finish it in one sitting, and just dive in.
And make sure you leave the lights on.