Naef, a young woodworker, has been tormented all his life because of his appearance, and he’s raised a prickly set of defenses against future hurt. The only people he’ll allow close to him are his sister and his mother. When said sister hesitates to marry her true love because it would mean leaving Naef on his own, her suitor proposes a solution to settle her fears. Naef will spend a year as companion to the suitor’s cousin, freeing his sister from worry while introducing Naef to an unusual community where he can start fresh.
The cousin in question turns out to be a man cursed with the shape of an anthropomorphic lion and saddled with the improbable name Aerie-Smith. Aerie-Smith’s got an island full of subjects whose animal forms are more confining than his own, and he promises Naef a home for a year if he’ll end his stint as companion by performing one regrettable act will not only secure Naef’s family’s future but also free everyone from their curse.
The resulting story is part “Beauty and the Beast,” part “East of the Sun, West of the Moon.” And I cried so damned hard.
Amy Lane’s got a direct line on my emotions. Naef’s first person narration is raw and heartfelt, and I latched onto him immediately because he falls into one of my favourite character types: the defensive asshole. Naef, like so many examples of the form, is an essentially good person who does his best to convince everyone he comes into contact with that he’s the nastiest guy they’ll ever meet. He’s certain if he confirms their worst suspicions right off the bat, they’ll shun him instead of mocking him or hurting him; two things he’s had far too much experience with.
In true romantic hero fashion, Aerie-Smith sees right through the smokescreen and refuses to treat Naef as the subhuman Naef would have everyone believe he is; that he suspects he may be, deep down, after more than two decades of abuse. Aerie-Smith is friendly and kind and capable of volleying back as much shit as Naef tries to throw at him. Their relationship unfolds and deepens as they spend more time together and Naef realizes it’s all right to let his guard down around this man. It’s all right to love someone so beautiful, and to let Aerie-Smith love him in return.
Their love does include a physical component, but you needn’t worry about bestiality. In line with the EotSWotM influence, Naef can feel any cursed person’s original form as long as he keeps his eyes closed.
Fluid transformations of both body and soul form the story’s backbone. Aerie-Smith may look a lot like a lion, but he’s mostly kept hold of his human soul. In contrast, many of his subjects struggle to reconcile the people they are in their souls with the animal bodies the curse has given them. A big part of Naef’s transition from defensive asshole to outwardly caring person hinges on the strategies he employs to remind them of their humanity so they don’t lose themselves before the mysterious ritual restores everyone to their original forms. There’s a not so subtle metaphor in there for seeing people as they really are instead of judging by appearances and/or dismissing people because they’re not attractive.
Which Naef is, on the island. The place transforms everyone in some way, and as his ship docks, his body becomes that of a conventionally handsome, able-bodied young man; something that makes his life easier in some ways, but that he hates. Naef is well aware that this is a temporary shift that’ll fade when the curse breaks, and that he, like everyone else, may find his soul altered in ways he isn’t all right with. He doesn’t want to become someone other than himself, and he’s reluctant to embrace his current freedom of movement, let alone his conventional beauty, when he knows he’ll someday return to normal.
I was nervous as to how Lane would handle this, given that physical disability plays a role in Naef’s pre-island life, but if you’ll allow me a representation-centred spoiler I’ll tell you I’m pleased with the outcome. Naef is disabled at the start of the novel and his disability returns at the end, coupled with a new perspective. Among other changes, post-curse Naef starts using accessibility tools he shunned in his younger years out of learned self-loathing and fear of censure. Like all the best characters, he transforms into a version of himself capable of embracing the changes he’s gone through, and of seeking out new ones beyond the story’s conclusion.
The whole thing is beautifully done, my friends. I cried and cried as Naef and Aerie-Smith worked through their issues, separately and together, and made their sacrifices for the good of their people and out of love for one another. TRUTH IN THE DARK is a beautiful and powerful story that entranced me straight through, and I’m beyond glad I read it. It's my second 5-star book of 2017.