What would you do if you could travel to another universe or through time? Would you try and fix the terrible things in your life? What would you do if your changes made things worse? Britney S. Lewis asks her readers these questions in her chilling new young adult horror romance The Dark Place.
When she was little, Hylee’s older brother disappeared. One moment she was hanging out with Bubba and their cousin Juice, the next a violent intrusion into their home. Shouting, banging, gunfire, and then Bubba was gone.
Now Hylee’s seventeen, two years older than her brother was when he vanished. Her family fractured in irreparable ways, made worse when she pulls a vanishing act herself. Unlike Bubba, Hylee reappears. The place she went to was dark and terrifying, but so are her parents’ reactions. They ship her off to her grandmother’s and try to pretend it never happened.
With her only friendship straining under the weight of years of neglect and the chasm widening between her and her parents, Hylee is grateful for the new relationship she forges with Eilam. And when he offers her answers about the multiverse and time travel, they’re pulled even closer together. Family secrets, generational trauma, and unexpected consequences haunt Hylee and Eilam as they circle closer to figuring out what happened that awful night. If Hylee can fix things, maybe she can fix her family. Or maybe she’ll just make things worse.
If you’ve ever experienced a traumatic event, you know how that moment creates ripples through your future. You’ve probably wished you could go back in time to stop that thing from happening or at least try to change things so it’s not as bad. You’ve been living your life, trying to stay focused on the present, when something unexpected drags the past out of the box you keep it locked away in and suddenly it’s like being back there, like you traveled through time. It’s so real it hurts all over again, and then you’re back to the present and you’re the only one who felt that change. For Hylee, it’s not a hypothetical but a reality. She isn’t stepping back into the actual historical timeline but the effects on her present and future are the same. Lewis does a great job at rooting the fictional elements in truth. It’s exactly the kind of novel teens dealing with trauma and grief need.
The relationship between Hylee and Eilam was much more interesting than the cover copy let on. “Swoony romance,” sure, but don’t dismiss it as instalove or destiny. These two teens each carry heavy burdens—Hylee from her brother’s disappearance and Eilam from a choice he made that almost destroyed his family. Hylee’s ability to move to another plane of existence pulls them together, and Lewis dials up the emotional intensity to feel both real and fantastical. These are teenagers, after all. They make mistakes, they lie, they keep secrets, they think they’re doing the right thing but are really only making it worse. Lewis made their romance both one of the most important things in their lives while also letting them recognize when to step back and let go.
I also appreciated Hylee’s fraught relationship with her family. There’s a tendency in YA fiction to write parents as one dimensional figures who are either negligent, evil, or excessively kind. But sometimes parents make mistakes that cause harm. Sometimes those mistakes are the result of their own trauma compounding with generational trauma. Hylee’s parents lost a child on top of all the other chaos happening in their lives at that time. Something like that has broken even the strongest of marriages, yet they held on. Did they make the right choice by sending Hylee away? Lewis offers no easy answers.
I envy readers who have the kind of family who tell each other everything. My elders are more like Hylee’s grandmother. Getting any information about family history is as much of a struggle for me as it was for Hylee. There’s that generational trauma again. Sometimes it feels easier to just not talk about the bad things in the past, like if you ignore them you can make a better future. But it doesn’t work like that, not in the real world and not for Hylee. That trauma will keep building like a snowball into an avalanche. The only way to stop it is to face it head on.
The novel stumbles in two places. The first is with the reveal of how time travel works. It’s both too simple and too easy to poke holes in. It’s a half-baked idea. There were ways to make it more unique or frightening or exciting, to really push it to the next level, but for whatever reason Lewis didn’t. The ending is also too tidy. Every choice the characters make is expected and quickly resolved without much ado. For a novel with as many chilling visuals as this, I had hoped for more edge to the finale. Fortunately, everything else about The Dark Place was so good that they kept the bits that didn’t hit the mark from dragging the rest of it down.
Genre-benders are tricky novels. They resist being pigeonholed, and comping is a challenge. Britney S. Lewis’ sophomore YA The Dark Place is a dark fantasy with a science fiction twist, if Jordan Peele crossed The Butterfly Effect with Stranger Things. It’s twisty and turny and very compelling.
The Dark Place is published by Hyperion.
Alex Brown is a Hugo-nominated and Ignyte award-winning critic who writes about speculative fiction, librarianship, and Black history. Find them on twitter (@QueenOfRats), bluesky (@bookjockeyalex), instagram (@bookjockeyalex), and their blog (bookjockeyalex.com).