Elizabeth Richards Black City was one of the books I was most excited about picking up at BEA this summer. I read Black City pretty stoked and 100% ready to love it. The cover is pretty, and I’d heard the concept was a neat take on the supernatural craze that has swept up so much of YA. For the first 160 or so pages of this book, I was into it. Really into it. Could not think of anything else into it.
In a city where humans and Darklings are now separated by a high wall and tensions between the two races still simmer after a terrible war, sixteen-year-olds Ash Fisher, a half-blood Darkling, and Natalie Buchanan, a human and the daughter of the Emissary, meet and do the unthinkable—they fall in love. Bonded by a mysterious connection that causes Ash’s long-dormant heart to beat, Ash and Natalie first deny and then struggle to fight their forbidden feelings for each other, knowing if they’re caught, they’ll be executed—but their feelings are too strong.
When Ash and Natalie then find themselves at the center of a deadly conspiracy that threatens to pull the humans and Darklings back into war, they must make hard choices that could result in both their deaths.
There were a lot of good things about this book. I liked that the characters were flawed in a way that made sense with how they were brought up. I liked that both Ash and Natalie had their prejudices and were ignorant about the other’s life. I thought the world building was fascinating, so much so that I looked past the random and somewhat excessive use of exclamation points and the weird Britishisms that crept in from time to time. I thought that there were some cool stories hanging out in the background, the kind that would help a trilogy make sense. The background cast was interesting, and they all had histories and personalities that made them more than stereotypes of the role they were in.
I thought that the atmosphere of the first 160 pages of this book was stunning. It was moody and dark and mysterious. There were things I wanted to know more about (like the breakdown of the regions being governed), but I was confident that we’d keep getting subtle context clues and not suddenly have a history lesson info dump randomly one chapter. In short, the beginning of this book was everything I’d hoped it would be and then some, which is why what happened around page 160 was such a colossal letdown.
What was most frustrating about this book to me was that we had the potential to really see two characters get to know each other. Ash and Natalie were from two COMPLETELY different worlds (hell, two completely different species), and the only things they knew were the stereotypes that each of their social complained of. Natalie was spoiled by the luxury she lived in (for all of the problems that came with it) and Ash’s problems had turned him into a detached jerk. And it made sense – perfect sense! – that these two characters would turn a physical attraction and a fascination into something more grown up and awesome. I would have been so down with THAT story that I’d be crying with joy as I told y’all about it.
But…no. Instalove. Instalove in the most awkward and random and out of nowhere manner. I expected there to be an element of Fate and Destiny because this is a fantasy novel and, honestly, I would be bummed if that element were totally absent. But even I didn’t expect it to the degree it happened. After that point, I felt like Black City turned into a completely different, not nearly as awesome book. Suddenly Natalie, who up until this point has shown a fair amount of open mindedness and common sense, ignores everything she knows about Ash and turns her back on her (only) friend because her (only) friend doesn’t like him (with good reason, had everything Ash let said friend believe turn out to be true). She doesn’t question the feeling. We’re suddenly thrown into this whole “You have literally awakened my heart so I have forgotten everything that came before.”
For 100 pages, I was ready to tear my hair out. I couldn’t make sense of what had happened. I wanted the Black City of the first 160 pages back. And then…the twist. In theory, the twist should have turned the whole instalove aspect on its head. I started to get my hopes up again. Ash (and to a lesser extent Natalie) suddenly has to question whether this instalove is real and the difficulties of a relationship with Natalie. Once again, we are back to a plotland I want to roll around in and never leave.
In order to decide if what he feels is real, Ash needs to make out with someone else. I was with him. This is a confusing time! You are confused! Make bad choices and make reader-me happy with some delicious conflict! Natalie sees and obviously she reacts just as I want her to react which is basically, “I understand and all, but screw you.”
But that plot, for me, didn’t sustain itself. Ash starts thinking and realizes, no, he DOES in fact love Natalie for who she is. This is where my problems came back and then some. Ash has admitted, as has Natalie, that they know very little of each other. They are clearly attracted to each other. They are clearly interested in finding out more. But he LOVES her. And why? Because of the way she clacks mints against her teeth and because of her bravery (and one more reason ala mints that I can’t remember). So, two of those reasons are automatically silly. Bravery. Ok. That makes sense. Only as a reader, I had seen only a few instances of Natalie being brave. The very start of the novel and once more. I had, however, seen several instances of her not being brave. Of her being scared and succumbing to that fear (which is something I actually really liked about her character).
In the end, instalove prevails, only without the supernatural element. I tried to argue myself out of feeling this way about the love story of this book. They are teenagers, I told myself. They are young and stupid and they don’t know what love is! But we’re told that they do. We’re told that they’re in love. The Romeo and Juliet risk everything kind of love.
And maybe in the end, my intense problem with the love story in this book is that I am the type of reader who does not find Romeo and Juliet at all romantic; who found it, rather, to be a story of passion but not of great love. Who found it to be the story of what happens when passion rules every aspect of your life. Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy for a reason. Only I know I’m not going to get that kind of payoff in this series because Ash and Natalie are very likely going to end up together. Which would be fine if I understood why; if this book went beyond the passion.
Even with all that said, if the world building of the first 160 pages had been sustained, I might have enjoyed this book more. I thought the idea of Black City was that awesome, but the idea faltered along with the love story. Too many things happened. There were, as I said above, enough subplots in this book to span at lest another installment of the series, but they all played out in a mere 340 or so pages. A LOT of things happened in this book. I felt like every time I turned the page, some new, crazy action was rushing at me. In some places, this worked very well. In others, it happened at the end of a chapter and the next chapter was several days later. It made the pacing a bit of a rollercoaster, but not an awesome kind. I kept start-stop-start-stopping, and it started to get frustrating the further into the book we got because more and more things just kept piling on.
Overall, Black City has oodles of potential. So much potential. Elizabeth Richards obviously has some seriously boss imaginings going on in her brain. That potential, though, is what makes this review so hard to write. I wanted desperately to love this book. I was loving this book. The middle, though, is a mess. The “meat” of the love story is a mess. It’s scattered and jumps around which means that the plot ends up scattered and jumping around. All of the awesome backstories and worldbuilding get completely swept up by the instalove tornado.
In the end, I just didn’t enjoy this book. Will I read the sequel? Yes. Because Elizabeth Richards DOES have boss imaginings going on in her brain, and I think this series is salvageable. Hell, this book was an ARC so maybe changes have happened. Without those changes, Black City, though it started with a spark, fizzled to a dud.