Dark Court Rising – Bec McMaster

The Dark Court Rising trilogy is Epic High Fantasy rooted in the lore of the Fae Courts. Iskvien is a princess in one of the Seelie Courts, bargained by her ruthless and evil mother to spend three months with her mortal enemy Thiago, the dark prince of Evernight in exchange for peace. But all is not what it seems, and the first book shows Iskvien uncovering truths about herself, Thiago, and her mother’s treachery. The first installment ends with an HFN, Happy For Now, but it is clear that the stakes are much higher than originally thought, and this isn’t the end of the story for Thiago and Iskvien.

This review was originally written as part of a personal project to complete an all Fantasy Romance card for r/fantasy’s 2022 Book Bingo. You can read an introduction to my project here. All opinions are my own.

Promise of Darkness
RELEASE DATE: 17/09/2019
Crown of Darkness
RELEASE DATE: 15/09/2020
Curse of Darkness
RELEASE DATE: 22/03/2022

Ultimately, this series is about unconditional love. It’s about dealing with the trauma of an abusive parent and learning to truly love yourself in spite of that trauma. Thiago shows Iskvien that she can be loved, but its up to Iskvien to set aside the self-doubt instilled in her by a horribly evil parent and learn to love herself. It is fitting that Iskvien comes into her full power not when she recognizes that Thiago loves her, but when she casts aside her mother’s absuses and accepts herself for who she is. To amplify this theme, Thiago’s own character arc involves self-loathing due to the Darkness inside of him, bestowed by his evil father. Until Thiago accepts that part of himself, he is never truly whole. At the heart of this trilogy are poignant messages about finding your personal power through accepting and loving yourself.

One of the things I appreciated most about these books is that the characterization and themes are mature despite being rooted in the Fae. So often, Fae-based books are YA or NA (not always, but often) and so I was pleased to find this adult, epic fantasy series with the Fae courts as their foundation. In some respects, McMaster hit the nail on the head with Fae lore. You can see the threads of classic Fae stories shaped to serve this particular world and plot. Her spin was different enough that it made me smile as opposed to thinking it “the same old” or this is “not quite right.” (Grimsby the grimalkin is an absolute delight!) This series is rife with magic, bargains, curses, and treachery, and she leans heavily into the concept of the precise wording that often leads to unexpected outcomes. But, at the same time, I did struggle to track the concept of Death, Darkness, and Darkyn (were these distinct or related in some way and how) and how these creatures fit in with the Seelie, Unseelie, the Old Ones, and the Otherkin. Maybe it was just me, but there were times when I had to just set aside my confusion with the world-building and keep going.

The interplay between the courts and side characters is what makes this series truly shine. The politicking, intrigue, treachery, and back stories of the various players make these books come to life in true epic fantasy fashion. The sub-plots were compelling and well-developed despite the majority of that happening from Iskvien’s POV. There are limited forays into alternate POVs and I wish there would have been more!

McMaster ended book three with wrap-ups for each sub-plot, many of which contained major open questions. It is abundantly clear that these fairy-tale-esque threads are being set up to become follow-on books in this world. She has already announced that the next book will be Andraste’s story (Iskvien’s sister), and it will be interesting to see how that pans out given her marriage to the Goblin King, Edain’s love for her, and the (I’ll say it – weirdly unexpected) erotic fight between Edain and Lysander at the end. And that’s just one thread! This trilogy definitely provided the foundation for an expansive, on-going series.

Throughout the first two books, I kept thinking, “Wow, her pacing is perfect!” The balance between character development and introspection and plot was on point! By the end of book two, I found myself furiously turning pages, and the ending was a complete kick in the teeth. It’s a cliffhanger, make no mistake, and I’m glad that I waited until all three books were out before reading through, because I immediately started book three.

That being said, the pacing slows considerably with book three, which in my opinion is the weakest of the trilogy. I liked it. It was a good book. But it could have been about 100 (or more, to be honest) pages shorter. It became repetitive at times, which made the declarations of love, instrospections about not deserving love, and the sex scenes start to fall flat, and I ended up skimming those after a time. Thiago and Iskvien’s HEA was hard-won and satisfying. It is the ending that they deserved, and I was pleased at how their story wrapped up.

Overall, I would recommend these books, especially for someone looking for an adult series rooted in Fae lore. Despite some of my critique, I think McMaster did a great job of blending world-building, romance, and deep theming into a satsifying and noteworthy epic fantasy series. I am intrigued enough that I would like to revisit this world and read Andraste’s story, set to come out in 2023.

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