Content warning: Discussions of attempted child molestation and stalking.
I almost always feel guilty when I don’t finish a book… and I feel even more guilty when that book was a specific review request!
Ari recently asked me if I’d be willing to help out with some of the book submissions she receives here at Ravenous for Reads, and I said sure! She sent me digital review copy of Dark Designs by Stefanie Spangler, and I was looking forward to reading this urban fantasy and sharing a review here.
Until I actually started reading it.
Dark Designs starts out with 8 year old Ivy Grant getting molested by Charlie Logan, a farm hand on her family’s farm. We see this from her point of view, and get a really good sense of her fear and confusion over what is happening. Thankfully her grandfather intervenes before the scene goes too far, but the girl is still left shaken by the attack.
The next chapter is written from Charlie’s point of view.
That immediately caused me to exit out of the file and read something else.
This pattern continued for the several weeks it took me to read the first 75 pages of this book. I’d get caught up in the story of Ivy and her twin sister Violet (the story jumps ahead in time and we meet them as adults) and their grandmother Audrey, only to hit another Charlie section and put the book down for days or even a week at a time.
Now, I understand that this won’t be an issue for everyone. I, myself, have in the past enjoyed books that included sections from the antagonist’s POV. It can be an effective tool to really amp up the tension in a book and give a better sense of the danger at hand.
But right now I don’t find myself in a mindset where I can be comfortable spending even a few minutes in Charlie Logan’s mind. When he returns to the adult Ivy’s life, he’s obsessed with her and appears to be engaging in stalker behavior. I found it really uncomfortable to read and it would immediately pull me out of the narrative.
Dark Designs has good things going for it. Like Creatures of Will and Temper, it does a good job of portraying realistic sibling dynamics. While so often books give us twins who are completely in step with each other, Ivy and Violet are opposites who love each other but also frustrate each other.
Their grandmother Audrey, who (along with their grandfather) raised the girls after they were abandoned by their mother, struck me as a strong and practical woman.
Readers may also enjoy the small town setting. It’s a real misnomer to call this an “urban fantasy”. It’s very much a rural story, set in a small farming town. Is there a name for that? Other books have played with this theme, such as Alex Bledsoe’s Tufa books and the Hallie Michaels books by Deborah Coates. The only thing these sorts of books have in common with urban fantasy is being set in our own modern world. Otherwise they tend to deal in completely different tropes: small-town life, everyone knowing your past, lonely backroads, a sense of isolation.
Spangler does a good job of conjuring that small-town feeling. Everyone knows about the new guy who moved to town, everyone knows that Violet and one of the local cops are crushing hard on each other, etc etc.
As for the fantasy elements, the Grant women are all witches. Their magic isn’t big and flashy. Charlie Logan has some sort of magic too, apparently gained from a potentially evil book. The magic feels pretty low-key though. I can’t imagine this book ending with some big fireball and lightning bolt battle.
But I’ll never know. As much as I wanted to get into this book, and see if Ivy can solve the mystery of her mother’s disappearance, I just couldn’t get past my dislike of the sections told from Charlie’s perspective.
Pros: Strong female characters, small town setting, competent writing.
Cons: Themes of molestation and stalking.
Conclusion: This one was not for me, but other readers may find it’s just their cup of tea.
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