Over spring break, I finished reading “Darkborn” by Alison Sinclair. It’s the first book in a trilogy, although I haven’t had a chance to start the next book yet. “Darkborn” is a fantasy adventure with strong elements of romance. The culture she explores in the book is fascinating. Although the society being aristocratic is not unusual in fantasy, the focus on a culture in which vision impairments are the norm is unusual.
In United States’ culture, a person with a vision impairment is thought to have a disability. Although our laws have been attempting to help reduce inequalities faced by persons with physical disabilities, individuals with vision impairments face many structural barriers in our society. (This blog post will point you to a video from the UK that attempts to explore “disability” through examining what the world would be like if the majority of people had disabilities. It works well to generate discussion on the structures surrounding persons with disabilities.) In recent years, several students with vision impairments have been in my sociology classes. I’ve learned a great deal about accessibility in terms of making class materials available for accessible technology like screen readers. Despite these changes, my students often still face inequality and stigmatization in many areas of their lives. I was excited and a bit nervous to see this explored in a fantasy book.
Centuries before the plot begins in “Darkborn,” a curse happened that caused the Darkborn to be unable to be exposed to light and the Lightborn to be unable to be exposed to darkness. They essentially live in two parallel cultures. Each culture developed different values and norms surrounding magic. The Darkborn reject magic while the Lightborn accept it. While the Darkborn are blind, their society has been designed around this aspect of the physiologies. In fact, they have a magical ability that allows them to use what seems like sonar. This means that they have some abilities that persons with vision would not have. (At first, I found myself wanting more visual descriptions in the prose. Of course, this was good writing on the part of Sinclair.)
The protagonist, Telmaine, is an extremely talented mage, although she does not realize the extent of her powers. She has been passing as a non-mage her entire life. She’s from a noble family, and she carefully hides her abilities due to stigmatization. Her family is disturbed when she marries Balthasar Hearne, who is not only from a less powerful family than Telmaine, but he also has a sister who practices magic. The people practicing as mages are ostracized, vilified, and segregated.
Although Telmaine is from rigid patriarchy, she rises to the occasion when her family is threatened. (While a wife and mother fighting for her family matches traditional gender roles in the US, it is not typical to use the means that Telmaine does. She doesn’t wait for a man to save her or her daughter. She takes matters into her own hands.)
In fact, I appreciated Sinclair’s writing of Telmaine. The love triangle that she becomes embroiled in actually makes sense. Her attraction to both of her potential partners is understandable, and she (and her partners) grapple with their feelings in the book. Unlike some of the books I’ve been reading lately, this book does not explore LGBT experiences.
Although I did not love this book the way I did “Curse of Chalion,” its meditation on stigmatization, passing, patriarchy, and culture was intriguing. Unlike some fantasy, I didn’t get any sense of the light and the dark relating directly to a dichotomy of good and evil. (In fact, Alison Sinclair discusses why this is the case at the bottom of this page.) The Darkborn culture seems complex, and I suspect that the Lightborn culture is quite complex, too. I particularly look forward to seeing how the Lightborn culture differs.
Cover analysis. Although I usually don’t analyze the covers of books on my blog, I had to comment on this one. The cover is lovely, but I found it incongruous. In the edition that I’m reading, Telmaine has her blue eyes focused directly on the reader. It looks like she is making eye contact, which does not make sense to me given Darkborn and their culture. Is this just me?