Wow do I have thoughts about this one.
Like – let me get it out of the way and say that this is beautifully written (seriously, Ray’s description and pacing and tone and everything seduced me looong before we got to the sex scenes); the characters are fucking awesome; the magic is breathtaking; the worldbuilding is such a tease, there are so many lovely and intriguing bits and pieces of this world and I demand to know more about all of them; and the sex scenes are just –
I am a sex-repulsed asexual, okay? NOBODY’S SEX SCENES ARE SUPPOSED TO MAKE ME FEEL LIKE THIS. I HAVE NO IDEA HOW TO HANDLE IT.
CONGRATS RAY, YOU BROKE ME.
What I’m saying here is, on all the fronts that most readers care about, this is amazing, you need go read it, WHY ARE YOU STILL HERE GO READ IT AND COME BACK.
But I actually ended up dusting off my English Lit & Language A Level and going deep on this one. For a novella of less than 200 pages, Darkling packs a whole lot into a small space.
(It’s perfectly spaced, by the way. Darkling is exactly as long as it needs to be; it doesn’t feel rushed or overfull in the slightest. I hope to get my hands on a full-length Brooklyn Ray novel someday, just so I have more pages to hedonistically roll around in, but Ray really knows what they’re doing when it comes to pacing and length. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a writer make use of the novella format so well.)
SO ANYWAY, I HAVE MANY THOUGHTS AND I NEED TO SHARE THEM.
A little bit of context for the fools among you who haven’t read this yet; our main character, Ryder, is a witch among a hidden-from-us-mere-mortals society of witches: this is urban fantasy set in our world, where the vast majority of people are unaware magic exists. (Being a witch also seems to be genetic; at least, I did not catch any references to witches who learned to be witches, as opposed to those born into one of the witch clans. So you’re either born with magic or you’re not, I think). Ryder is also a trans man, but that’s less important than the fact that he is half Elemental – witches who, shocker, have control over one of the elements and whose magic is then heavily influenced by that element (Ryder’s Elemental powers over fire, for example, lend themselves to illusion spells, which witches of other elements need to work harder at) – and half Necromancer. Necromancers are even more clannish than the other witch clans, probably because other witches see them as Terrifying and Also Evil. Unsurprisingly, your average witch doesn’t seem to have a very detailed picture of what exactly Necromancers do, only that it’s Dark Stuff. And Ray doesn’t try to soften the trope to make it more palatable; necromancy involves a lot of cutting, blood-letting, and a rite of passage where the necromancer in question literally dies and comes back to life. Necromancers also seem to be the only witches who strike deals with demons, although the question of what exactly demons are – and whether they’re the Default Evil that most people think they are – is brought up over the course of the story, and I hope to get a clearer answer to that question at some point. As an angelology and demonology nerd, I’m very interested.
But! So Ryder is half-Necromancer. His friends – the small coven he’s a part of – do not know this. (They also don’t know he’s trans). But when his Necromantic powers start to get out of control, he doesn’t have much of a choice but to admit the secret.
That’s the plot. But now I want to analyse.
First off, I find it fascinating that Ryder’s powers – the battle between which kickstarts and defines the book – are fire and necromancy; it’s a very clear bit of Light vs Dark, a black-and-white divide, which is exactly how the magical world seems to see it. These are incompatible forces in the same way that Elementals and Necromancers are supposedly incompatible; the conflict which threatens to destroy Ryder from the inside-out (his magic/s will kill him if he can’t get this sorted) only seems to confirm that these two types of magic – and the two kinds of witches – cannot, and should not, co-exist.
(Of course, Light and Dark are also complimentary forces. The yin/yang symbol, which embodies the entirety of creation, is made up of both in equal parts. Only having one or the other won’t get you very far, if you’re creating a universe; you have to have both.)
But of course, Ryder’s very existence proves it’s not as simple – or as black and white – as the Elementals in particular would really like it to be. Presumably if the two types of magic really couldn’t co-exist, then Ryder’s conception wouldn’t have been possible – and anyway, it’s not a clear case of ‘Elemetal magic = good, necromancy = bad’. Any modern witch can tell you that the classical elements are dual-natured by default; fire warms, but it also burns, and the tidy candle-flame is the same creature as the inferno – it’s only a matter of degree. (…Pun unintended.) In the same way, Ryder’s necromancy can restore life as well as drain it, and as for blood magic, well – despite how any kind of blood-related magic is typically depicted as Evil, capital E, in Western media, blood is also pretty literally liquid life. And as mentioned above, the ‘demons’ some Necromancers bargain with are not the kind you might recognise from Sunday School or Hollywood horror movies.
So Elemental and Necromatic magic are – like most things – more about how they’re used, as opposed to being Good or Evil by default. (One scene that especially drives this home is when one Air witch prevents another witch from breathing while delivering a lecture. It happens off-page, but it still makes it clear that Elemental witchery can be plenty fucked-up, without any need for blood sacrifices or whatever).
Regardless, Ryder is clearly depicted as very literally dual-natured. With that in mind, the fact that Liam – Ryder’s eventual lover – is a Water witch also seems very heavy in symbolism: water is the equal-and-opposite match for Ryder’s fire, and like fire is traditionally associated with creativity and new life/creation. But the ocean – where life on this planet originated – also has its own terrifyingly dark depths. On all levels then, Liam is, symbolically, a perfect match for Ryder – which is important, because Ryder is, to put it mildly, a fucking badass, and anyone who’s going to love him needs to be able to be his equal.
Now, if I were really taking an English Lit exam on this book (and oh my gods I would love that so much) I don’t think I’d be able to resist taking all this dual-natured symbolism to Ryder’s queerness… And I can’t really resist it now, so let’s hope I don’t fuck it up. But point one: I love, and am fascinated by, how Ryder bucks both the magical and gender binaries, and I have to wonder if that was random whim or deliberate symbolism on the author’s part. By his very existence, Ryder is the embodiment of ‘your gender binary is imaginary’, as is any genderqueer person – but he sends the same message to the magical community by existing as both an Elemental and a Necromancer. While Ryder is dual-natured magically, though, I don’t consider that analogous to being trans; Ryder isn’t bigender or genderfluid – he’s a man, full-stop. And I think that’s important, because it seems to be treading dodgy waters to claim his trans-ness is a reflection of his magic, or vice versa – because the implication then is that his gender identity is dual-natured, which it isn’t. His magic and his gender both break their respective binaries, but not in the same way, and I think that’s a good thing. Otherwise the implication might be that his dual-magic made him trans, and that’s…a weird place to go, worldbuilding-wise. Especially when it’s made repeatedly clear that Elemental/Necromancer witches are completely unheard of, so if it was a case of dual-magic ‘causing’ someone to be trans…trans witches would basically not exist, in this context? Which would suck? And going the other way – of Ryder being Extra Magical because he’s trans – can also get murky; I personally love stories where characters being queer or disabled or nuerodivergent gives them abilities others don’t have…but I also acknowledge that by doing so, a story is still marking out those characters as ‘different’, aka, ‘not like the rest of us’. It’s positive Othering…but it’s still Othering.
And it’s not something we need to worry about right now, because Ray doesn’t do that with Ryder. But to get back to my original point: you don’t need a reason to make a character trans, any more than you need a reason to give them brown eyes or glasses. But I do wonder if Ray specifically wrote this story – that of a dual-natured witch having to deal with his conflicting magics – with a trans character because it maybe wouldn’t have the same symbolic impact coming from a cis character.
But unlike with his magic, Ryder is – delightfully – not in conflict about his gender. Quite the contrary; his choice not to come out to his coven seems born out of a realistic understanding of how cis people generally react to that kind of ‘revelation’, as well as a ‘it’s none of your damn business’ mindset – not any kind of internal shame or self-worth/-image issues. Ryder is afraid of how Liam will react to the knowledge, but he himself is more than comfortable with his own gender identity, sexuality, and body. Darkling is not a case of a cis author writing about the suffering of a trans character because they can’t envision a trans character having any other kind of story – it’s a defiantly sex-positive, queer novella from a queer author that flips the bird to anyone who might blanch at it.
(Can you tell I love it???)
Ryder’s ease with his body is, perhaps, mirrored in his unwillingness to give up either his fire powers or his necromancy – he is both Elemental and Necromancer, and only risks the loss of one half of his witchcraft when it’s do-or-die (-or-kill). He refuses to be shamed for his Necromancer heritage/nature, even when most of those around him demonise Necromancers to a degree that would be laughable if it wasn’t a kind of prejudice we see far too often in the real world; his defiant embracing of both his magical aspects seems very symbolic of the trans experience, in telling the world to fuck off when it tries telling you what you should be. Ryder is as certain of his identity as an Elemental and Necromancer as he is certain in the knowledge that he is a man, whatever anyone else might think – and it’s fucking glorious.
However, as previously stated, this is not a suffering!trans book (thank the gods). That Ryder is trans is effectively a non-issue; the revulsion and prejudice he faces is based pretty exclusively on his being a Necromancer, and in particular his refusal to accept that there’s anything wrong with being a Necromancer. There is no dysphoria, not even when it comes to the (literally steaming hot) sex scenes; this is not a transition story (except in the sense of his coming into his powers) or a coming-out one (except, again, for his ‘coming out’ re his magical heritage – out of the broom closet, if you will.) Like I said earlier, although you can draw a symbolic link between Ryder’s magical- and gender-identities, that’s purely on a ‘literary analysis, scope-it-out-with-a-magnifying-glass’ level – from the story’s perspective, Ryder just happens to be trans; he’s not trans because he’s a dual-witch, and he’s not a dual-witch because he’s trans. He’s trans because trans people exist, not because this is a ‘trans issues’ book.
I suppose, in some other universe where Ryder is not trans, an English Lit student could argue that his disparate magics, and the conflict surrounding them, is a symbolic stand-in or metaphor for the queer experience. But I much prefer this reality, both because it is just epic to see a trans witch be such an incredible (and fucking sexy) badass – and because I’m tired of having to read into a text to find purely metaphorical queerness, instead of getting to just read a fantastic story with canonical queerness front and center. The way it damn well should be!
Now, I’ve talked myself in circles, and probably repeated myself far too much. But I hope anyone who’s made it this far has at least gathered that this is a freaking amazing book, and that Brooklyn Ray is mindblowingly skilled to have packed so much into so few pages. You can take it as read – pun fully intended this time – that I will be devouring the rest of the series, and any future books Ray cares to publish.
I leave you with one last sexy black-eyes gif, and a small personal headcanon.