Title: A Light Amongst Shadows
Series: Dark is the Night #1
Authors: Kelley York, Rowan Altwood
Genre: historical fiction, supernatural, horror
LGBTQ+ Category: m/m, gay, bisexual, cisgender
Publisher: x-potion designs
Pages/Word Count: 342 pages
James Spencer is hardly the typical “troubled youth” who ends up at Whisperwood School for Boys. Instead of hating the strict schedules and tight oversight by staff, James blossoms, quickly making friends and indulging in his love of writing, while contemplating the merits of sneaking love poems to the elusive and aloof William Esher.
The rumours about William’s sexuality and opium reliance are prime gossip material amongst the third years. Rumours that only further pique James’ curiosity to uncover what William is really like beneath all that emotional armor. And, when the normally collected William stumbles in one night, shaken and ranting of ghosts… James is the only one who believes him.
James himself has heard the nails dragging down his bedroom door and the sobs echoing in the halls at night. He knows others have, too, even if no one will admit it. The staff refuses to entertain such ridiculous tales, and punishment awaits anyone who brings it up.
Their fervent denial and the disappearance of students only furthers James’s determination to find out what secrets Whisperwood is hiding… Especially if it means keeping William and himself from becoming the next victims.
This book caught my eye a while ago – it ticked off a lot of my favorite themes: Victorian England, disgraced youths sent away from home, queer romance, ghost stories. It took me a while to get around to reading it, but once I settled in, I wasn’t disappointed. While reading, I could tell the authors put in a lot of effort into researching the time period but didn’t let themselves get too caught up on the details to the point where it took away from the story.
The book itself had a fair amount of action but is mostly character driven. James, almost as soon as he starts making friends and settles in, finds his closest friend and roommate first in trouble and then missing altogether. Although James easily could have kept his head down, he cannot allow the mystery of his friend’s disappearance to go uninvestigated. The staff and other students are certainly willing to.
Except for William, who presents as standoffish but turns out is so riddled with anxiety that he uses laudanum to manage it. William, despite all his worries and misgivings, is the only one who makes any effort to uncover the secrets of Whisperwood with James.
The romance between these two blooms easily and quickly, but I’m not so far removed from my teenage years that I find it unbelievable how quickly these two fall for each other. In a haunted school, both abandoned by their families and alienated from society at large by their sexualities, James and William make sense together. Their relationship has nuance and its complications, though most trouble comes from keeping their relationship hidden from the other students and staff.
As the story and romance between them progresses, we find out what happened for James, a sensitive, kind, and conscientious young man, to end up at a school for troubled boys and why he cannot return home. The authors work hard to treat the troubles of both young men with empathy and understanding, though they make sure to remind us that James and William are firmly living in a time of victim-blaming and using moral failings as an explanation for most troubles.
A Light Amongst Shadows is a ghost story, but I cannot say that I found it a particularly frightening one. It’s not to say that it isn’t well-written and a good effort wasn’t made to unnerve the audience, but after so many years in the horror genre, I’m somewhat inoculated to scary stories. That’s a personal failing and for the uninitiated or those particularly sensitive to the genre, the authors do conjure up some imagery that may be spooky or down right terrifying.
The novel ends with an epilogue that takes place on year after the conclusion, which I found a little jarring. However, I understand that one school can only hold so many ghost stories and the authors wished to set up the rest of the series. I look forward to reading the next installment for sure and recommend this book to fans of ghost stories, historical fiction, or sweet and uncomplicated love stories.
About Dan: Dan Ackerman is a writer and educator who has lived in Connecticut for their entire life. They received their BSED from CCSU in 2013 and wrote their Master’s thesis on representations of women in same-sex relationships in contemporary Spanish literature and cinema. Currently, Dan is studying for a second MA in ABA and works in a center school for students with a variety of intellectual, developmental, or multiple disabilities. In their spare time, Dan continues to read and write, supplemented with a healthy amount of movie marathons and gaming.