Despain’s Dark Divine trilogy was a perfectly satisfactory entry in the popular young-adult sub-genre, but to use a sports metaphor, she’s “made the leap” with her latest novel, The Shadow Prince. Grounded in the Orpheus and Persephone myths, it tells of a prince of the underworld named Haden who is called to take on a regular task in his world: visiting the human realm to bring back a young woman to serve as queen. But this particular young woman—16-year-old Daphne, the daughter of a celebrated rock star—may be more important than all those who came before. And that gives the disgraced Haden an opportunity to reclaim his place as heir to the kingdom.
It’s not a particularly complex plot conflict—Haden has six months to convince Daphne to return to the underworld with him, of her own free will—but Despain fleshes it out with one of the richest examples of world-building you’ll find in a fantasy novel. The details of the Underrealm—its hierarchies, its history, even its petty infighting—provide fantastic depth for Haden’s quest, with the familiar mythological stories interwoven gracefully enough to provide a familiar foundation.
Beyond the unique universe she creates for the characters, however, are the characters themselves. It’s impressive enough that the two central players are both case studies in expertly crafted characterization; Haden and Daphne are more emotionally complex than you have any reason to expect from simple genre fare. But The Shadow Prince is filled with supporting characters nearly as vital as our heroes, to the extent that it feels like every one of them could support a separate side novel.
All too often, the inevitability of a young-adult novel becoming a series feels like a threat rather than a promise. When The Shadow Prince reaches its conclusion—with cliffhangers stacked upon cliffhangers—it’s more like you’ve been visiting a world too full to be contained by this one story. Lucky us.
Bree Despain reads from and signs The Shadow Prince at The King's English Bookshop, Saturday, March 22, at 2 p.m.