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Courting Darkness

Book review by
Andrea Beach, Common Sense Media
Courting Darkness Book Poster Image
Absorbing historical fiction ramps up the palace intrigue.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Cultural and historical insights into 15th-century France and Brittany, including real people and events. Author's note explains which characters and events are real, briefly explains where and why she changed things. Offers some insight into how people transitioned from pre-Christian beliefs and worship to Catholicism, including suppressing old beliefs, changing some things to align with Catholic Church's dictates.

Positive Messages

It takes a lot more courage to love than it does to hate, and it takes even more courage to have faith in love. Women in power should use it to make things easier, better for other women instead of taking advantage of same oppression they suffered in order to oppress other women. Explores impact on women of always belonging to a man in one way or another and limited options they had to make their own decisions or act independently.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Both Sybella and Genevieve model bravery and loyalty. Sybella often acts recklessly but is always motivated by compassion, caring, a desire to protect. She overcomes her self-loathing, learns she's capable of great love and free to give it to whomever she chooses. Genevieve is becoming impatient with long wait to be called to action, but manages to keep herself sharp. She's very mistrustful, could miss out on a lot life has to offer because of it. She also nonchalantly uses her sexuality to get what she wants or needs from men, like trading a kiss for a knife or becoming the king's mistress to spy on him. Both are also strong and unafraid to act, and well-trained in fighting both in battle and hand to hand.

Violence

Lots of fights and battles with swords, knives, crossbows. Blood is mentioned or described briefly as spurting, spattering, etc. Fights include punching, kicking, choking, snapping necks. A past suicide attempt is mentioned several times, and attempted kidnapping to return young girls to abusive brother is a plot point. A difficult childbirth mentions lots of blood, screams of pain; the mother dies. A drop of blood is used in a ritual. 

Sex

Kissing and caressing. A couple of instances of sex: One briefly describes foreplay, taking off shirts, caressing breast and nipples, moving hips, wrapping legs around waist; the other describes kissing, caressing a breast, undressing, moving knees apart, thrusting, shouting, grimacing. Sounds of a "furtive coupling" heard. A couple of powerful men live with their mistresses in their homes. King's bride is inspected fully nude, though nothing's described; issues are raised about premarital virginity, consummating marriage, discomfort after first time having sex. Mention that two women learned about sex by practicing with each other, that some men like to have sex with heavily pregnant women.

Language

Infrequent strong language includes "merde" (French for "s--t"), "damned," "dammit," "piss." "Whore" is used for prostitute but not in name-calling; lots of synonyms for prostitution listed.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Lots of mention of drinking wine, sometimes to excess with hangover or behavior consequences eventually described. Poisons and antidotes are used as part of the assassins' arsenal.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Courting Darkness is the first in a planned two-volume historical fiction novel with fantasy elements. It's set in the same medieval French world as author Robin LaFevers' popular His Fair Assassin trilogy and shares some characters with that series. The main characters are trained assassins, so violence from fights and battles use swords, knives, and crossbows. Hand-to-hand fighting includes punching, kicking, choking, and snapping necks. Blood is mentioned as spurting, splattered, etc., without much other detail. A couple of instances of having sex describe kissing and mention caressing breasts and nipples, thrusting, shouting, and grimacing. Other sexual content includes briefly described kisses, mention that in the past, two women practiced having sex with each other, men who have mistresses living in their houses with their wives, confirming virginity after consummating marriage, and sexuality as a tool for spying or trading with men for something you want. Drinking wine is mentioned pretty frequently, sometimes to excess and usually with consequences described. Strong language is rare and includes "merde" (French for "s--t") and "damned." Themes explored include how women were repressed, how pre-Christian religion was repressed and changed to Catholicism, and the power of love. The main characters are good role models for loyalty, bravery, and compassion.

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What's the story?

COURTING DARKNESS begins when Mortain, the physical embodiment of the god of Death, falls in battle and is gone from this world. Two of his daughters, Sybella and Genevieve, are left to wonder what will become of the convent dedicated to him where they were raised, and more important, which, if any, of the powers he imbued them with they'll still have now that he's gone. The marriage of the duchess of Brittany to the king of France is a perfect opportunity for Sybella and Genevieve to influence the ruling regime and ensure that Brittany remains under the duchess's control, and also to make sure that their convent survives the growing influence of the Catholic Church. As events bring them closer together, they'll have to navigate intrigue and mystery, to say nothing of just surviving to see another day.

Is it any good?

Fans of Robin LaFevers' His Fair Assassin trilogy will enjoy this immersive return to Brittany in the 1400s as they follow familiar characters and meet new ones. Courting Darkness still has fights and battles -- and assassinations, of course -- but it also ramps up the palace intrigue. A marriage of political convenience brings the war between Brittany and France to an end, and teens will easily relate to narrators Sybella and Genevieve as they figure out how to stay true to their beliefs, their missions, and their sisterhood while learning who they are and what they're capable of.

If you haven't read the previous trilogy, it may take a little longer to immerse yourself in this world, and it may take some extra time to get to know the characters and some of their previous relationships. But fans of historical fiction that skews a little to the dark side without sacrificing adventure, romance, and strong female characters will find the journey well worthwhile. Nongraphic but mature sexual content and violence make it best for teens and up.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the violence in Courting Darkness. Is it realistic? How much is OK in books? Is it different for movies, videos, or games? Why or why not?

  • What about the sexy stuff? How much is OK in YA books? Does it seem realistic?

  • Are Sybella and Genevieve good role models? Why or why not? What do you like about them? What are their character flaws?

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Themes & Topics

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For kids who love historical fiction and romantic fantasy

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