“In the dark hours of a frostbitten morning, someone is digging.”
Sometimes you need a comfortable read, a story with characters you’ve read multiple times, set in a land that’s not too strange or different. Sometimes you just need something that you’ve been to before, something you know from the very first page. Darkwalker by E.L. Tettensor is one of those books for me; a novel that’s not doing anything new, but at the same time not following the standard tropes of either the Fantasy or Mystery genres.
It’s a lovely tale full of atmosphere, brilliant characterization, and tight plotting. To be frank, I’m surprised there isn’t more praise for her debut.
Maybe that’s because the cover makes it seem like the protagonist is going to be a moody anti-hero like in most love triangles. Or maybe it’s because the blurb makes it out to be a Sherlock Holmes mystery. It is both of these, but to throw them under stereotypical labels would be doing Tettensor’s writing an injustice.
Bodies are going missing. Corpses are being dug up from their graves. Nicolas Lenoir, the Inspector on the case, doesn’t see much stock in catching gravediggers. He’s a disillusioned and broken man who would prefer to drift through life rather than solve its riddles. The man fights his little battles with his partner, Sergeant Kody, and the local townsfolk. When he wants to become somewhat productive, he garners information (and dishes it out, too) from a street urchin named Zach.
But when the kid goes missing, Lenoir starts to worry. A switch flips in his head. The once famous Inspector returns, and prepares to find the kid at any cost. Even if that price is his own life.
“There was a strange roaring in his ears, a sound distantly and unpleasantly familiar, like a bad dream. A dream about a night spent huddled in the shadows, listening to the blood rushing through his veins and praying or daylight.”
This story is thrown in the pile of Urban Fantasy, but in actuality, there’s often times more excitement outside of the Victorian-esque city, in the surrounding Five Villages. What Tettensor does best is create a strong and vivid atmosphere. The fog of the outlying areas seems to float off the page and grasp your imagination along every chapter. It’s a beautifully realized tone with flowing descriptions that never try too hard and never get in the way of the story.
At its heart, it’s a simple Victorian-esque world dotted with salons, cramped tenements, bogs and fog, and Inspectors. But Tettensor peppers the world-building with giant gypsies and dark magic creeping alongside the mist. She doesn’t try to recreate the wheel; she simply adds onto what we already know.
A comfortable and fun read, as I said.
And while Lenoir can be a jerk, from the very first back and forth you can feel as if you understand why he’s always miserable. Of course, that mystery is teased across the narrative, but from the author’s magnificent characterization, it actually feels original and organic. Too many times we get the asshole with a dark and dreary past. Lenoir has this in spades, but it never feels forced.
“I speak of consequence. Of judgment. Not the judgment of mankind, but of something higher, more powerful. We are all called to account for our actions, called to pay for what we have done. You cannot escape it – fate will have its vengeance.”
Other well-fleshed characters dot the landscape like the Adali woman Zera who’s doing her best to keep an established salon running while rumors of nastier occupations from her run amok. She may have status and influence, but she’s still paranoid.
There’s also Bran Kody, a nice foil to Lenoir. He’s a chipper young lad under the supervision of Lenoir. While the protagonist is cynical to his core, Sergeant Kody is dead set on solving every mystery, turning over every clue. He’s what Lenoir once was, and that’s why he hates the young man.
And then there’s Zach. He’s the little runt wishing for greater things (as most children do) and found a friend in Lenoir. I think the greatest POV was from this urchin. Tettensor does a fabulous job of contrasting Zach’s innocence with his street smarts; whether it be when he prays for Lenoir to bust in and save him guns a blazing, or the next minute when he’s trying to save himself, the kid takes center stage alongside Lenoir.
And from this strong characterization and atmosphere, we get an immersive tale improved upon by an amazing plot. The twists come fast and hard, and once the beginning picks up, you’re in for a wild ride. Neither of the investigators lets up, and thus we’re running from prison to gypsy camps to apartments where we threaten meat heads. Every scene is wonderfully realized and easy to see. All the dots line up perfectly, even if they don’t seem able to in the middle.
While I may have had trouble with the ending, wishing it had ended a bit darker, this story still revolves around justice.
The main man to dish this out is the Darkwalker.
This is where the supernatural elements come in.
The Darkwalker is a being driven to avenge the dead and kill anyone who wrongs them. Some call it a demon; others, a righteous angel. Few believe it actually exists, and fewer have ever lived to see it. The thing is so fascinating, ethereal, and dangerous. Whenever it steps in, all focus is on it.
And that’s fine by me.
I’ll be waiting for the next chance to meet it, and maybe address some of Lenoir’s past, too.
“No, justice was not blind. She was a prostitute, for sale to the highest bidder.”