If Night falls, all falls.
Helen Lowe’s début novel Thornspell was a retelling of the Sleeping Beauty story from the Prince’s point of view. The Wall of Night trilogy is a more traditional epic fantasy, though it contains a dash of science fiction and a unique setting that sets it apart from the usual swords-and-sorcery fare.
Set in the world of Haarth, the titular Wall of Night refers to a mountain range that is garrisoned by the warlike Derai clans. Made up of Nine Houses in all, the Derai defend the Wall against that which lies beyond: the demonic Swarm. Destructive and cunning, the Swarm is only held at bay by the constant vigilance of the Houses, particularly the House of Night. But there is internal strife within the Houses that threatens to weaken the Wall: schisms between its people, feuds within its ruling families, and the remaining echoes of a civil war that hinges on a tentative peace treaty.
In this perilous world lives Malian, the daughter of the Earl of Night. Growing up motherless as her father’s only rightful Heir, she takes every possible opportunity to slip away from her guardians and explore the Old Keep of the Night stronghold. At the same time, she is acutely aware of her own importance, having the traditional adage “if Night falls, all falls” hammered into her head since childbirth. An interesting mix of high spirits and heavy responsibility makes up our main character, and the action starts when she acts on her curiosity over outsiders to the Keep (two mysterious heralds bearing a message for her father) by sneaking under the cover of darkness to the library to learn more.
It is there that she realizes in horror that the Keep has been infiltrated by demons of the Swarm, stalking the corridors on some covert mission that soon breaks out into chaos. In the aftermath of battle, Malian’s potential role in an ancient prophecy is revealed, as are her inherent powers.
It sounds like the standard fantasy set-up, but there are several aspects at work that turn The Heir of Night into something special. First is the host of intriguing characters that weave in and out of the story — though the protagonists are the tried-and-true archetypes of the rebellious princess and the social outcast (in this case a novice-priest), the supporting cast is made up of mysterious heralds, enigmatic minstrels, unwelcome consorts, and battle-weary warriors. Whatever other faults the Derai might have, sexism is not one of them, as several women hold high-ranking positions as warriors and priests. (Thankfully, there are no grumpy dwarfs or stoic elves to be found anywhere — it’s not that kind of book).
Secondly, there is a touch of sci-fi at work when we realize that the Derai themselves are alien to the world of Haarth, having arrived from “beyond the stars” at some distant point in the past in order to erect the Wall of Night — and their presence is not wholly appreciated by the original inhabitants of the world. There is the sense of a grand scale at work here; not of one family, one race, or one country at risk, but of immeasurable worlds that hang in the balance. As the tagline says: “if Night falls, all fall.”
Lastly, the book is divided into three parts, each one distinct from the other in terms of plotting. The first part involves a secret invasion and the protagonists’ desperate attempts to flee, hide, or fend off the attack. The action takes place entirely with the Keep itself, and the chapters in which the heroes must delve into the dark catacombs of the Old Keep read almost like a horror movie in regards to the suspense and the effective sense of claustrophobia that they convey. In the second part, the heroes rally to their defenses and plot their strategies, muse over the rumors of treachery and come to terms with the newly discovered revelations about their lives. Finally, the third part has the two sides pitted against one another as plans are put into action, and Malian and her allies undertake a dangerous mission to outrun her enemies as she emerges into the big wide world.
The Heir of Night is a carefully plotted story in a complex world, and though there’s some exposition involved (there’s a glossary at the back to help you keep track of it all), the rules of magic and the goals of our protagonists are clearly established. For the most part, Haarth is a dangerous, grim world, but there are flashes of beauty and kindness that make it a place that’s worth fighting for — a battle that will continue in the next part, The Gathering of the Lost.