Sixteen-year-old Sarah Trevelyan would give anything to regain the power and wealth her family has lost, so she makes a bargain with Azrael, Lord of Darkwater Hall. He gives her one hundred years and the means to accomplish her objective—in exchange for her soul. Fast-forward a hundred years to Tom, a fifteen-year-old boy who dreams of attending Darkwater Hall School but doesn’t believe he has the talent. Until he meets a professor named Azrael, who offers him a bargain. Will Sarah be able to stop Tom from making the same mistake she did a century ago? This is smart fantasy mixed with elements of horror from master storyteller Catherine Fisher. She says, “Darkwater Hall is an image of the power and knowledge we all desire. But what will we pay for them, and are they worth the price?”
As I've come to expect from Ms. Fisher's writing, the setting is perfect. The descriptions enfold the reader into the almost-Gothic atmosphere of the novel, and the setting itself breathes credibility into the plot. I enjoyed the pacing of the novel as well. It was a fast read, but it didn't feel simplistic in the least.
The characters are flawed and interesting. They make decisions based on pride and fear, and I found that to be authentic both for those characters and for life in general. I sympathized with the main characters, even if I didn't always agree with them or like their choices.
I enjoyed the Faustian aspect to the novel as well. Exploring the idea of bargaining with the devil to get what you want in exchange for your soul is a fascinating concept, and Ms. Fisher managed to give a new twist to it. It's hard to decide who the devil really is in this book (until the end!), and several characters have secrets that could be dangerous. I certainly think this would be an excellent novel to study in a literature class or to discuss with a book club. There are deep riches to be mined in its pages.
What Left Me Wanting More:
I wanted a bit more insight into the character of Azrael by the end of the story. I also felt like there was room for exploring a bit more of the plot, fleshing out some of what happens to Sarah between when she makes her bargain and when she returns to fulfill it. It's a shorter book, and a fast read, and I would've liked to linger in the world and explore it a bit more. There were also a few POV shifts in the middle of chapters that jarred me from the story for a minute until I adjusted.
This lovely, Gothic tale successfully explores the Faustian idea of bargaining with the devil using one's soul as collateral and delivers a fascinating twist. Flawed, authentic characters and a beautifully untamed setting add to the book's atmospheric charm.