I was super excited to read a book about a magical healer facing a plague – even if they call alchemy ‘science’ in this book, it’s totally magic – and this one definitely delivered.
It’s about a girl called Nedra (narrated beautifully by Mhairi Morrison with a lovely soft Scottish accent) from a small northern village who manages to get a scholarship to a medical school in the big city of an island colony ruled over by a young Emperor. An incurable plague has been ravaging the population and making its way towards Nedra’s village. She’s dedicating the next year of her life to finding a cure, and must adjust to a very different life in the school, having left her family (including a twin sister) behind.
I really enjoyed this story. It delivered as promised a dark fantasy where Nedra must confront the reality of illness and death, how illness tears families apart, and the sacrifices Nedra must make to become the as-promised necromancer we see in the opening pages. I liked seeing Nedra study and make friends with Grey, the other point of view, a fellow student who has gone into alchemy for possibly less-than-honourable reasons. Grey has just kind of fallen into alchemy because he comes from a rich family, and I guess this is why his narrator,Bruce Mann, used such a pompous sounding voice I found really annoying to deliver his narration. I thought Grey was an OK character – he certainly wasn’t perfect and I liked that, sometimes seeming almost coward-like in his unwillingness to rock the boat from his high level of privilege. I also thought his romance with Nedra was lacking in chemistry.
But honestly, I really did enjoy Give the Dark My Love. I loved seeing how Nedra interacted with the other characters and how she came to the conclusion to use necromancy, which was punishable by death, and there’s only two things that reduce this from a 5 star read to a 4 star read for me.
One is that Nedra is just so insufferably good, and everyone around her are shits. Nedra is literally the only medical student to care about the plague. She’s a bleeding heart, so stuffed full of selfless good intentions it practically leaks out of her orifices. This is juxtaposed by the fact that literally no one else gives a shit. None of the other students volunteer at the hospital, not even her love interest. None of the other students are into medicine to help others, but for selfish reasons, like advancing in politics or making a good wage. I liked Nedra, but I hate this aspect. I think the story could have had a whole other element added if there was at least one other student who volunteered – then Nedra could discover him or her at the hospital, they could become friends and study together so Nedra’s not such an outsider and Nelly No Friends, maybe they could explore necromancy together and something goes tragically wrong and the friend is unfortunately killed. But no, it’s just reinforced that Nedra is literally the only one who cares, the only one who is selfless and works herself to exhaustion with her caring and selfless acts.
The other factor reducing this from a 5 star read is that the particular magi that Nedra uses, medicinal alchemy, is basically magical anaesthetic. Using a crucible and a rat (warning to anyone sensitive to animal cruelty) she can siphon off the pain from her patient, and transfer it to the rat through herself. Considering Nedra experiences amputations through this magic, the descriptions of what the pain actually felt like were really lacking. For most of the book it was simply something like ‘pain roared through me’ but couldn’t describe anything more than that, and honestly I found it a little disappointing, especially in something touted as a ‘dark fantasy’, and especially considering what comes later.
Apart from these issues, I really enjoyed the audiobook of Give the Dark My Love and I’m really looking forward to what Nedra has in store in Book 2.