Let’s talk about Darkling by Brooklyn Ray. This modern fantasy romance follows Ryder, a trans guy witch with flame based magic, as he deals with a big secret: he’s been fate-linked to his crush, Liam, in part because of his secret affinity for necromancy. Usually, witches in this book only have one type of magic they can do, but because of a secret affair, he’s got magic from two different branches. Not only is the plot absolutely delicious, Darkling uses Ryder’s necromancy as a kind of stand-in to address traumatic experiences trans people may have.
I would wager that most trans people have either been accused of “lying” about their identity or “hiding the truth”, or they know someone who has. In Darkling, this shows up because Ryder goes stealth with regards to both his transness and his affinity with necromancy. One of his major motivations for doing so is his fear of not being accepted by his friends and by his crush, Liam. But, as both his magic and his transness get revealed in various ways, it is not his transness that is met with negativity, but his familial ties to necromancy. Characters respond in a number of ways, from being shocked to being uncomfortable to being outright angry that Ryder hid his necromancy from them. This mimics how some cisgender people react upon finding out that a person they know is transgender. Brooklyn Ray does a wonderful job of bringing catharsis to emotionally traumatic incidents without retraumatizing their readers by addressing such incidents directly.
Furthermore, trans people of all kinds experience a kind of liminality when it comes to the gender binary and are often pressured to choose either “man” or “woman”. In Darkling, the stand-in for this characteristic of transness is Ryder’s magical duality: his elemental, widely-accepted fire magic and his generally-mistrusted necromancy. The plot of the novel follows his difficulties balancing both magics, and he regularly feels pushed to choose one over the other. Again, we see the same catharsis without retraumatization, but (as I try very hard not to spoil anything) even when Ryder has to make a decision about his magic for the safety of those around him, the end result does not disappoint and this parallel between his necromancy and how transness can be experienced is maintained. (Wow, that was about as vague as I could be, huh?)
The final parallel revolves around how transition is often framed as being like a “death,” sometimes by transphobic people and sometimes by trans people themselves. Upon coming out, some trans people are met with comments of “you’re dead to me” or “it’s like I lost my son/daughter”. On the other side of things, trans people refer to their old names as “deadnames”. This makes it all the more interesting that Brooklyn Ray chose Ryder’s magic to involve necromancy–especially considering the fact that necromancers in this world must calm their magic by undergoing a ritual in which they die and then come back to life. Not only does this flip the common narrative on its head, but also–as trans deaths continue to be on the rise–having an undying trans character is really wonderful to see.
Overall, I really loved Darkling! It was a quick read, but Brooklyn Ray still managed to make sure the characters are really well-fleshed out. You can really tell the amount of effort that went into planning it. By the time I was done, I was so invested in the characters and the world that I wanted to get started on the second book of the series, Undertow. This is a great book for my trans readers to check out, and I think my cis readers will enjoy it as well! If you’re a cis person and you read it, I encourage you to focus on the parallels between Ryder’s necromancy and experiences of transness to gain some greater understanding of trans experiences. (But also, the main relationship is adorable, heart-wrenching, and steamy all at the same time, so I won’t blame you if you get distracted from that!)
Darkling by Brooklyn Ray
Publisher: NineStar Press
Number of Pages: 126 pages
Content Warnings: Bloodplay, knifeplay, bloodletting, gore, death, animal death, resurrection, coming out.