When I saw the trailer for Ask the Dark a couple of month ago, I immediately requested a review copy. It arrived with a handwritten note from Anne Hoppe, Senior Executive Editor at Clarion Books, who wrote, “This is the most masterful debut I’ve ever published.”
Dalton Black also saw the trailer and asked [read: begged] if he could read it first. He finished it promptly and submitted this review. Since I already had a review in hand for Books & Whatnot, Ask the Dark was no longer on my “have to read” stack. But I could not stop thinking about Anne Hoppe’s words, and the book quickly made its way to the top of my “want to read” stack.
After I finished it, I reached out to Anne, because I wanted her to know that her note captivated me as much as the book did. And I wanted to dig a little deeper into why the book affected her. I thought you’d enjoy her reply.
Hooray! So delighted to know ASK THE DARK is finding new fans there. I do think it’s such a special book….
One of the most amazing things to me about the novel is Billy himself. This is a kid I have little or no direct resonance with—life has pushed him around and he’s made some rotten choices in the past. He’s a boy of toughness, action, and reaction. I know he would have zero use for me if we met, and I wouldn’t begin to know what to do with him or how to relate in a way that meant anything to him. We are not simpatico, and this is not a kid I would naturally gravitate toward—rather the opposite, in fact. And yet I completely and totally love him. Henry has shown me Billy’s heart, at even deeper than levels Billy himself would recognize. His faults and warts and missteps are clear and unvarnished, but I understand him, and understanding this boy breeds respect, compassion, and love. Henry shows us the good and the bad in Billy, and the good can’t help winning out as he carefully reveals all.
In terms of Henry’s mastery in this book, I’m certain there must be a technical term for it which I don’t know, but I’m in awe of the convincing way he, as the author, weaves a very sophisticated story in the voice and from the perspective of a relatively unsophisticated character. It isn’t that Billy is simple, it’s just an editorial awareness of the distance between Billy’s relatively straightforward view of life and Henry’s ability to manipulate words to achieve complex effects and evoke layered emotions. I don’t know if Billy would ever even read a novel, but man oh man, would Henry write one!
A lot of readers and reviewers have commented, too, on the fact that you know from the opening pages of the book that Billy survives the ordeal, and yet the tension is so powerful that, especially in that final climax, you never stop being terrified for him.
And then there’s the delicate way Henry/Billy very carefully avoids describing the most grisly of scenes, tiptoeing right up to the edge and then leaving it to the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks—that’s masterful: lesser writers think they need to fill those blanks, little understanding the power of suggestion. And it’s Henry’s restraint throughout—his trust in his readers to find connections and meaning—that also astonishes me in a debut author. That trust in the compact an author has with readers is one of the signs of a mature writer…or of a very special debut.
I expect you can tell by now that it is very hard for me to NOT talk about Henry and his book! Is any of this helpful to you? Or can I do better for your needs? It’s an honor to have the chance to contribute in any way. Thank you so much for your note, for letting me know the book is finding readers there, and for giving me the chance to talk about ASK THE DARK!
With all my best,