Review: A Beautiful Dark by Jocelyn Davies

Title:  A Beautiful Dark

Author:  Jocelyn Davies

Publisher:  Harper Teen

Series:  Beautiful Dark #1

Other Reviews for This Author:  None

Sometimes, you really aren't sure how to explain your enjoyment of a story that is fundamentally a patchwork of previous stories that you've read.  These types of stories are unique yet derivative.  They have similarities in plot and concept yet are clearly their own work.  A Beautiful Dark is very much one of those books.  It's a book that once again uses the very-popular love triangle idea with a highly popular paranormal concept - angels.  It also contains quite a bit of set-up for the future two books, and the boys are hot and beyond comparison.  Yes, this book is indeed like many other YA paranormal novels - yet I enjoyed it a lot as a fan of the genre.

Skye's friends have thrown her a massive birthday party in honor of her turning seventeen.  They all know how she is with surprise parties, but they can't help but attempt to make one happen every year.  Seventeen is an exciting age for Skye, and a party at her favorite coffee shop, Love the Bean, is a great way to celebrate it.  Skye spends the night with her best friends Cassie and Dan, as well as with many of her other classmates, including a guy named Ian who has a substantial crush on her.  It's a night that any teenage girl would be happy to have.  It's a night that is one more step into Skye's adulthood, and the scary but exciting future that it holds.

Everything may seem normal at first, but the entrance of two very different guys changes Skye's party - and her life - forever.  Asher is the kind of guy that turns on the charm with a wink and a flirtatious smile.  Skye finds him outside of Love the Bean when she needs to take a breather from her birthday bash, and something instantly seems interesting about him.  Devin, a boy whose blonde, All-American looks oppose Asher's dark features, also appears at Love the Bean without much cause.  Though Skye doesn't know either of the boys, they seem to pay quite a bit of attention to her.  After they get into a heated argument in the middle of Love the Bean, Skye realizes that they aren't normal boys.

Asher and Devin do more than disrupt Skye's party.  They disrupt her entire life.  Asher and Devin are soon going to Skye's school and spending time with her.  She sees good things in both boys - Asher with his flirtations and charms, and Devin with his quiet but assured personality.  The two boys both garner some type of affection with Skye, but she can't tell where the feelings differentiate between the two of them.  Which one could she really fall in love with?  And how are these boys related to the growing sense of unease about her - and the supernatural gifts that seem to be appearing haphazardly?  Could Asher and Devin be behind the random fluctuations of thermostats and heating items around her...or is it Skye herself causing these things?  And if so, how do Asher and Devin come into play?

A Beautiful Dark really attempts to start strong with its heroine, Skye, and it mostly succeeds in that regard.  The most negative thing I have to say about Skye is that I've read her type before - many times before.  What can I say?  A spunky heroine with a fair sense of self that suddenly gets confused because of a changing existence and one/two/three guys that addle her senses?  It's a pretty common character type.  What makes Skye work well is that she has a distinctive voice that fits the teenage personae.  One may not find her personality type anything new, but her actual dialogue is unique and suggests a new character that hasn't been seen before.  Her interactions with her friends and love interests alike feel more on the original side, and Davies injects a very modern teenage humor into the interactions that feels very in touch with how teens act today.  Skye's character arc in this first installment is thin, however, and a lot of that is due to the massive amounts of set-up that the novel uses in order to further the plot and relationships of the characters.  The reader learns a lot about Skye, her insecurities, and how she has lingering grief over losing her parents and living with a relative that is often out of the house.  Skye is bubbly and social, though, and she becomes quite an amusing character to watch with the boys.  Davies also includes much more romantic interaction than in most YA novels.  Some may say it's too much, but Skye's relationships with the love interests really become fleshed out, and in that regard A Beautiful Dark's protagonist felt fulfilling.  Skye's relationships are surprisingly complicated, and one can actually understand why she is torn between the two guys and unable to make an easy interpretation of which is the one she truly wants.

It's safe to say that the other characters in A Beautiful Dark - or rather, mainly the love interests - are expanded upon with a surprising amount of depth.  A lot of the interaction between Asher and Devin is hostile.  They compete for Skye but also for what she represents based on the book's plot and mythology.  It's interesting to see how the two are not just worried about her, but about what else is going on.  It made the book feel like it had a heavier connotation to the love triangle and why it was going on.  Asher and Devin also have two distinct personalities, and Davies does a fabulous job of showing how they can each capture a piece of Skye's heart.  Asher is more of a playboy and one you wouldn't necessarily want to be attracted to right away, but he shows soft spots to Skye that suggest more than what one would perceive.  Devin, by contrast, is very much a good boy that attempts to be honest and direct.  What's interesting is that both boys have an affinity related to the book's mythology that is actually played out.  The sides of good and evil aren't so cut and dry in this version of the angelic mythology, and what's nice is that Davies shows equal pro's and con's to both sides.  For instance, Devin may be a very kind person who does good things, but he also has to be completely obedient.  Things tend to work out that way, and Davies ends up making it a struggle between chaos and order instead of good and evil - blurring the lines and making the characters a lot more complicated in the process.  What's nice is that they both also care about Skye, but that it's confusing and true to life instead of an outright lust/love between them.

Where readers will find A Beautiful Dark a deviation from its predecessors is the writing.  Yes, it is still commercially appealing and based on the romantic aspects, but with A Beautiful Dark it feels more appealing than in other YA PNR reads.  I actively knew that I was reading large sections of set-up and emotional expansion without caring so much about the plot - although Davies manages to introduce a very simple but effective angelic mythology to the mix.  She steers clear of excess religion, and the basing of it on the chaos/order cycle allowed it to feel like a creative twist on the ideas of the fundamental moral forces that are at place in the world. This immediately struck me as awesome, as the same elemental opposition is used in a series of video games known as Shin Megami Tensei.  (They are extremely excellent, but that is not related to this novel).  The idea itself isn't totally original, but in YA I found it to be a breath of fresh air, as it allowed the characters to become more ambiguous.  It also allowed Davies to do one of the two things she does best in her writing: emotional complexity.  Yes, the actual conflict of a girl going between two guys isn't particularly special in today's YA market, but Davies takes things to a surprising level.  Both of the guys have their faults and their good parts, and she makes the distinction between the two and Skye's confused affections seem realistic.  The emotional parts of the book may border on excessive, but Davies clearly likes them and puts an effort into making them particularly important in understanding Skye and her romances.

Davies has her other strength in dialogue and general character interaction.  The romances sizzle.  The characters speak in a way that is unique, humorous, and modern.  This is a novel that thrives on the characters being interesting and an investment to the reading experience.  The problem is that the book never quite gets the right balance between the characters and the parallel of the actual plot.  Davies starts out strong, but the plot's first half is mainly a host of unexpected issues that steadily lead up to the acknowledgement of Skye's abilities and her formulation of who Devin and Asher really are.  This problem happens with a lot of YA series now, but Davies kept me from being bored because of the surprising emotional investment involved in learning who the characters were.  The main issue was that the plot really didn't pick up until the end of the novel, when problems started occurring and Skye realized that she was getting into a lot more than she planned for.  Davies wrote the mythos well enough - at times I felt like it was hard to truly grasp all of the more complicated interactions between the chaos/order sides, but Davies managed to make the philosophical and emotional differences between the two factions clear, sensible, and worthy of further thought from the reader.  The reader doesn't pick a love triangle side right away because of how hard Davies makes it to find a good guy and a bad guy, and in that regard Davies showed excellent construction in  her writing.

There wasn't a lot I didn't enjoy about A Beautiful Dark.  The pacing got slow, but the characters, their relationships, and the mythology were all more than interesting.  Davies wrote a great story that unfortunately ended in a massive cliffhanger (which admittedly annoyed me), and it became a story that stayed in my head as a good one - a test that some reads don't overcome.  My only real qualm is that it uses a lot of tropes in ways that aren't so much innovative as enhanced by Davies and her authorial voice.  This means that, unfortunately, the book won't appeal much to readers who don't enjoy the tropes.  However, if you do - try the book, as you may (like me) find it a book that has quality to its tropes.  I have to say that I'm really excited to see where things go in the second and third book, and that's more than I can say for some series that I've started.

Cover:  The girl/pose/ect. is awkward and looks extremely uncomfortable.  The more I look at it, the less elegant it seems.  I do find the way the title font is used to be interesting - if a little off-putting because of the lack of consistency.  However, it ties into the book's themes and the love triangle, and in that regard I find it to be pretty cool.

Rating:  4.0  Stars

Copy:  Received from publicist/publisher for review  (Thank you, Heather and Harper Collins!)

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Ashleigh said...

Funny, I just reviewed this book myself about three hours ago! We felt very differently about it (I didn't like it very much and really only read it for research purposes), but you get across why you liked it so well. Great review, John!

(Lucky you, getting books from the publicist/publisher. My review requests get ignored because my blog is still considered too small. Maybe I'll get there one day. And please ignore this entire aside. I do this sometimes.)

booktasty said...

Haha I like your comments about the cover. I saw it and thought, "Whoa that has got to be uncomfortable!!" :)

Katie said...

Great review. I honestly didn't think I was going to read this one but after reading your review I think I will have to check it out. =)