Ethan Wate is not having the best summer. His girlfriend Lena gives off mixed signals--partially because she's a Caster, and on her recent birthday, she had to choose whether to embrace Dark or Light magic, and kind of chose both; it's impossible to choose both, but all anyone knows is that a few of her relatives, including her beloved Uncle Macon, were killed. Ethan liked Uncle Macon, so he bears that grief. To make matters even worse, Lena has begun hanging out with a handsome, mysterious, Harley-riding stranger named John. Though Lena swears there's nothing going on, it's only natural that Ethan worry. As if that weren't enough, he has a summer job working at the Gatlin County Public Library. This isn't bad, since the head librarian is Ethan's late mother's best friend, Marian.
Then Olivia, a beautiful blonde English girl, shows up to intern with Marian, and Ethan finds himself tempted.
"Beautiful Darkness" is the second book in the Caster Chronicles series, and mostly it does right by its predecessor. In the first novel, Ethan is sort of inert: he's emotionally invested in Lena's Claiming (for Casters, their "Claiming" is like a Sweet Sixteen from hell), but he feels powerless, just a normal, mortal kid, caught up in supernatural machinations far beyond his grasp.
In this book, Ethan learns that there is a little of the extraordinary in everyone. He delves deeper into Gatlin County's mysteries, and in doing so, learns a lot about himself, his friends, and his family.
As for Lena, there will be a new Claiming, brought into existence by Serafine, the second most evil Dark Caster on Earth. This Claiming will occur at The Great Barrier, a sort of intersection between the Caster world and the Mortal world. Lena, John, and Lena's Dark Siren cousin, Ridley, have already set out for the Barrier. It's up to Ethan, Olivia, and Ethan's good-hearted-yet-dorky friend, Link, to follow, and somehow try and save Lena from a whole crew of evil beings, all salivating to join the Dark side.
"Beautiful Darkness" is a pretty good book. For me, it lacked the urgent charisma--that OMIGODICAN'TPUTTHISDOWN-ness "Beautiful Creatures" had. Part of this, no doubt, is that we're already familiar with Gatlin's eccentricities, as well as the secret sub-world of the Casters. I loved how the authors took some of Gatlin's mortal humans, and showed that they might just have a little bit more knowledge than Ethan knows about.
A large portion of "Darkness" follows Ethan and friends on their blind-faith journey to save Lena. To me, this felt like a bloated, less-interesting fantasy quest than, say, "The Hobbit."
Those would really be my two biggest complaints with "Beautiful Darkness": first, at 504 pages, it feels way overlong. There are some scenes that do nothing to advance the story. Some of these scenes are funny or nice, but they could have been excised, and the novel would never have missed them. My second complaintlet--and I call it a "complaintlet," because it's not really a whole complaint, more like the miniature "Fun Size" Snickers bars in a Halloween treat sack version--is that "Beautiful Darkness" does a whole bunch of telling, and not so much showing. "Beautiful Creatures" was full of wonderful descriptions and rich images. Here in book two, there's a whole lot of talking. I wasn't crazy about Ethan and Lena's estrangement. I have no problem with there being some tension and uncertainties after the Claiming, but I felt a little slighted by the way it was presented. In book one, they shared thoughts and dreams. Now, only an odd sniping piece of dialogue gets through, usually a variant on "Ethan, just leave me alone." I felt like the rules changed. Not a big deal, really.
I have a theory that in trilogies and series fiction in general, the second book nearly always pales next to the first one. First time authors have spent untold years developing their characters, and visualizing the world(s) they inhabit. Second books rarely show as much imagination. That's why I found different elements in "Darkness" somewhat lackluster: the supposedly weak yet plucky good guys on a Hobbit-like journey--replete with a powerful, staff-wielding wizard with a staff (well, a sort of witch)--even a cat who senses evil, and helps our protagonists find their way. (I found Lucille in "Darkness" to be cooler than Crookshanks, however)
The good news is that most series rebound after the second installment. This bodes well, because for all its various faults, "Beautiful Darkness" is still a decent read.