The Dark Vault by VE Schwab

I would like to thank Titan for an advance copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review

Publisher – Titan

Published – Out Now

Price - £9.99

Imagine a place where the dead rest on shelves like books.

Each body has a story to tell, a life seen in pictures only Librarians can read. The dead are called Histories, and the vast realm in which they rest is the Archive.

Mackenzie Bishop’s grandfather first brought her here four years ago, when she was twelve years old, frightened but determined to prove herself. Now her grandfather is dead, and Mac has grown into what he once was: a ruthless Keeper, tasked with stopping often-violent Histories from waking up and getting out. Because of her job, she lies to the people she loves, and she knows fear for what it is, a useful tool for staying alive.

Its always interesting to read a writer’s earlier work. Bloggers often get fascinated with the new debuts (we love the shiny!!)  but longevity also means we see a writer evolve and develop their ideas and themes.  I’ve been enjoying VE Schwab’s work since I read Vicious many years ago.  Her stories are unusual and haunting, her characters are never run of the mill and the worlds she builds are both haunting and beautiful (finding out where is a fellow Slytherin is icing on the cake). This is one of her earlier series The Archived collected in one larger novel and available for the first time in the UK. It gave me a remarkable lead character to now become one of favourites.

Both stories are told to us in first person by Mac and when we first meet, her life has been thrown into disarray not by any of the supernatural aspects of her life but instead the unexpected death of her younger brother Ben. Her parents are struggling, and no one wants to admit this to anyone. Her mother moves them from the family home to a new environment for a fresh start. Instead Mac finds that this new home (the former Coronado Hotel) offers an unusual connection to the other side of her life.

Mac is a Keeper for the mysterious Archive and finds a new entrypoint into a mysterious set of dark alleyways and doors known as the Narrows in which lost spirits (often young children but more violently adults) are wandering trying to find the exists and Mac’s job is to stop them and retrieve them into the Archive before they get back into our world. It’s a violent life under Mac’s sleeves are constant bruises and cuts that she hides from her parents under a web of compelling lies. The Hotel offers Mac new ways into the Narrows for speed and two new friends who will have an important impact on her life. The funny and secretive Wes who visits the Hotel regularly and within the Narrows the haunting but compelling Owen who also doesn’t want to share his life story. Mac though has one more talent she can ‘read’ a room through objects so when she finds her new bedroom was the site for a vicious murder and the murderer appears to have escaped justice. Mac decides to focus on unravelling the mystery and her two new friends will be heavily involved in the resolution.

Mac for me was the key drawing point of the story.  On the one hand she is a very contained and self-reliant individual. Her grandfather (Da) taught all he knows she has crafted her daytime persona to a tee; knows how to lie and is very focused on her Keeper role. But her inner pain comes through; she cannot fix her parent’s grief; she can’t quite remember how brother looked all the time and she can’t tell anyone who and what she is. Despite all of that she wants to do the right thing and she will put herself on the line to do it. This reluctance to share does mean she exposes herself to danger regularly and the suspicions of her family, friends and the mysterious Librarians within the Archive means she is constantly trying to tread a path where she risks hurting wither herself or anyone else. You really want her to survive and in the second book her decisions in the first escalate to one of the darker parts of the series but her battle to fight past that is engrossing (there is a reason I cursed the train for actually arriving on time at this moment!).  The second book adds new characters and situations that Mac has to navigate, and she isn’t the standard outcast that so many books go for as the default and seeing someone trying to find her place in the world is always more refreshing.

As with any Schwab story the world we walk in is fascinating and this is haunting.  Some would claim this is more YA but it’s a unsettling story where lost souls of children are being chased in an eternally dark alleyway, death and violence follow Mac and her friends and there is a huge sense of something larger hiding under the real world so I think adults would enjoy this story a lot too. The Archive is revealed to be not entirely a place to be trusted and the Librarians and those they work for come in all sorts (particularly in the second half od the story). This adds to the sense that you cannot quite trust who and what you’re seeing, and this novel really gets tense as things escalate particularly in the second story. But its beautifully crafted and there are consequences for earlier actions that the plot and character development we see really stands out. Imagine Buffy but without all the wisecracks and even more emotional depth.

My one gripe is that this series awaits a third volume which this volume all hints towards (publishing is sometimes hard).  But you can read the ending as a more open-ended conclusion with some loose ends but one day I’d love to see more of Mac and that world. If you’re a fan of Schwab you will love this; if you enjoy Buffy you should enjoy this and if you just want a great dark story you should enjoy this.  In other words, go get this and enjoy your stay in the Archive – hopefully they will let you leave too…