Lauren B. Davis’s latest novel transports its reader back to seventh-century England, where widespread belief in superstitions, spirits, and gods galore collides with the birth of Christianity. In her acknowledgments, the author likens her imaginative journey into a fargone past about which little is known to launching a paper airplane out of a spaceship and hoping to hit a “habitable planet.” The result of this attempt is an allegorical novel in which the characters, though vivid, are primarily symbols, rather than richly layered psychological beings. Each has a fairly predictable part to play in the unfolding tale.
The story centres on Wilona, a young girl left alone after a plague kills her entire family. Wilona is an outsider viewed with suspicion by everyone but the healer she is apprenticed to, and a single warrior in the lord’s hall. When the monk Egan arrives in Wilona’s village as part of a Christian mission, their fates become intertwined. Both are under siege for their beliefs and must fight for a place in their radically changing world.
Davis brings ancient Northumbria to life with lush descriptions. However, an obsessive use of simile mars the evocative prose. The gods hold a woman giving birth “like a flame in a fragile lamp”; a lord’s face “is dark as the roiling sky”; the day is mild as “udder-warmed milk”; cries “taste like blood.” Morals stated in dialogue – “all gifts come at a price” – also dilute the narrative power, as these truths should be implicit.
Davis is prolific, with five novels and two volumes of stories to her credit, and she traverses new territory with each successive project. Against a Darkening Sky will appeal to readers with a taste for historical fiction and a curiosity about pagan England. Fortunately, the story’s theme – how to remain true to one’s beliefs when they pose a threat to belonging, and even survival – still resonates today.