Darker Still by Leanna Renee Hieber – Advance Review

Book Jacket:

The Picture of Dorian Gray meets Pride and Prejudice, with a dash of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

New York City, 1882. Seventeen-year-old Natalie Stewart’s latest obsession is a painting of the handsome British Lord Denbury. Something in his striking blue eyes calls to her. As his incredibly life-like gaze seems to follow her, Natalie gets the uneasy feeling that details of the painting keep changing…

Jonathan Denbury’s soul is trapped in the gilded painting by dark magic while his possessed body commits unspeakable crimes in the city slums. He must lure Natalie into the painting, for only together can they reverse the curse and free his damaged soul.

You can read an excerpt here.


Leanna Renee Hieber makes no secret of her love of Gothic romance with this story, and the paradigms of the genre are lovingly burnished within Darker Still, a YA love letter to Dorian Gray. And while I’m sure this book will win many a fan with its breathless romance, honestly it just wasn’t quite to my taste.

Hieber freely admits she wrote Darker Still to serve as a gateway drug to 19th century literature, and I think she succeeds admirably on the Gothic romance front – but having read this book, I now have come to realize that I’m not particularly a fan of Gothic romance. Don’t get me wrong, I love Jane Eyre with an unholy passion, it’s just that I have a rather low tolerance for bosom heaving, hand to forehead if not downright full on to the floor swooning, overblown Gothic romantic silliness – and yet I can’t really fault this story for standing on the very bedrock of the genre. To be fair, Hieber has given her leading lady both pluck and agency – but while Natalie does not faint dead away to the floor, she still indulges in a fair amount of swooning, and all in all it makes me long for Northanger Abbey style tongue in cheek fun at the genre’s expense. Darker Still unabashedly is what it is – and if you’re a Gothic romance fan, this book is most definitely your cup of tea.

Still, that’s not to say I didn’t easily read through this story, because I did. The plot moves at an engaging clip, and there are some fun suspense moments (though none too hair raising). Plenty of enjoyable, well-worn tropes make an appearance, such as the requisite girl dressing as a boy moment, the girl acting as bait moment, and the girl falling in love with a man above her station conundrum – and of course the much beloved gaslight and fog are very much in evidence.

As to the original elements, I thought Hieber brought an interesting point of view to her story, having her heroine be both mute and of the merchant class, and I enjoyed how Natalie never took an insult lying down. All around Natalie is a perfectly likable sort, and her love interest, the ensorcelled Lord Denbury, is certainly a handsome chap – but there wasn’t really enough personality on either front to win me over. If you enjoy breathless hand holding and a couple looking deep into each others’ eyes, then you will certainly enjoy this book – but I thought it all was a little too much like Gothic Contrivances 101, that Denbury would happen to fall in love with the one girl who could save him, and that she, despite being beautiful, would of course never before have been paid the slightest romantic attention by a man, and would of course swoon at first sight of Denbury. Sigh. I kept thinking that a few years down the line they’d fall apart if the inexorable YA paradigm of True Love wasn’t squelching them together.

As for the paranormal side of this tale, it was fairly light. Hieber throws real magic into the Spiritualist movement of the era (think Mercedes Lackey lite) and Natalie’s abilities at first were fascinating – but sadly, once Natalie knows she’s not crazy, her talents quickly become a mechanic of plot convenience and nothing more. And the magical unraveling of Denbury’s predicament and the formulation of a solution are far too easy – a mystery this story is not – and the hints of a larger magical world feel tacked on at the end just to tease the next book. All in all, the meat of this story is the romance, not the fantasy – and yet, there still was enough to it all to keep me, a non-Gothic-romance fan, going until the end.

Darker Still is an engaging, light and swoony tale – but when I arrived at the end I found that nothing about this story had made a lasting impression. This romance just wasn’t for me.

Byrt Grade: B+

As Levar Burton used to say – you don’t have to take my word for it…

Kirkus Reviews says:

Although she follows most of the conventions of the genre, Hieber applies some real imagination to the story. Her depiction of the dark magic involved and of the demon’s murderous activities adds some good suspense and stands out as the strongest element of the novel. Characterizations work fine, although none surpasses two dimensions.

Voya says:

Hieber’s novel is basically a retelling of Oscar Wilde’s 1891 The Picture of Dorian Gray, with the roles reversed and paranormal romance inserted. Because so much of the plot is influenced by Dorian Gray, savvy readers may find the events of the story predictable;  however, younger readers and those not familiar with the book to which it alludes may find this book confusing and slow-moving.