Title: The Dark Lady
Genre: Magical Realism, Historical Fiction
Publisher: Hodder/Hachette Australia
Published: 27th April 2021
Synopsis: A natural storyteller with a vision of his own, The Dark Lady, Akala’s debut novel for teens will enthuse and entertain teenagers and young adults, showing that reading is a true super-power.
A pickpocket with an exceptional gift. A prisoner of extraordinary value. An orphan haunted by dreams of the mysterious dark lady.
Henry is an orphan, an outsider, a thief. He is also a fifteen-year-old invested with magical powers…
This brilliant, at times brutal, first novel from the amazing imagination that is Akala, will glue you to your seat as you are hurled into a time when London stank and boys like Henry were forced to find their own route through the tangled streets and out the other side.
Elizabethan London is a harsh place for those on the lower rungs of society, but especially for an orphan like Henry, whose black mother has vanished, and is said to be dead, and his – presumably – white father took off a long time ago. At fifteen, Henry has lived with Joan and her sister, Agnes his entire life, and Agnes’ children, Matthew and Mary in the slums of London. Henry is a pickpocket, an outsider and a thief – he stands out on the streets, and even those he thinks are friends may not be. Yet Henry has a special talent that Joan exploits and wants nobody else to know about – Henry can read books in other languages and translate them. He also loves watching the plays of William Shakespeare, and this would have been a perfect book to post about four days ago on Shakespeare’s birthday.
These powers make Henry someone valuable and hunted – and also, have many questioning why he has these powers, is he a witch, and demanding answers of him. He lives in a world where racism exists but so does class – both issues that are explored throughout the book in ways that are confronting and realistic and illustrating the oft-ignored or untold presence of people like Henry in Elizabethan England. We see the racism, the classism, the sexism – all the different aspects of division for all people through Henry’s eyes as he navigates a world that values a certain type of person in a certain type of standing – and that fears magic.
The inclusion of Shakespeare, at first it seems like he is a background character, is incredible, and his presence gives the book and story a good grounding. Henry’s fascination with words and Shakespeare’s plays was one of my favourite things about this book and his character. Henry is literate, which is unusual in several ways: his class, his race, and he can read and understand any language. The latter is secret, yet the first two, and indeed during Elizabethan times, the first – class – alone, would have been unusual enough. Akala captures these conflicts and Henry’s feelings – the nuances of liking what he can do but also being mindful that so much about his identity and what he can do makes him stand out – exquisitely.
We also get a view of the Elizabethan world that sits in the depths of reality. The smells, the sights, and the sounds – anyone who is different stands out and is discriminated against, and insulted, and even those of the same race but different social standings are starkly contrasted with the wealthy. I really enjoyed the way Akala contrasted and married all these differences and similarities in a way that illustrated an aspect of the Elizabethan world often unexplored, but also with a kind of universality that gives a voice to anyone who felt powerless during these times. It speaks to specific aspects of discrimination that have never really gone away, but also, the universality of discrimination, and the sense that people will always use their power to discriminate where and when they can. Not much has changed in this regard – perhaps the language we use has changed and the way we deal with it and see it as unacceptable has. Highlighting in an historical context like this shows how much, and for how long racism and classism has affected and filtered through every aspect of our societies across the world.
This enthralling book, whilst not a Shakespeare retelling, it would be a good book to read alongside studying Shakespeare to help give insight into the time and language of the Elizabethan age for young people during this time.