Review: This Dark Descent

This Dark Descent

by Kalyn Josephson

Roaring Brook Press (imprint of Macmillan Publishers), 2023

Category: Young Adult
Reviewer: Cheryl Fox Strausberg

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The best way to get what you want in the fantastical land of Enderlain is to win the Illinir - a magical horse race that is as dangerous as it is prestigious. Win this race and anything you want, you shall have - even a boon from the King, himself. With such rewards on the line, it’s hard to resist putting your life on the line to win.

Enter the team of outcasts - Mikira (the rider), Arielle (the magician), and Damien (the mastermind) who know that they can win because they have huge things to lose and a lot riding on victory. For Mikira, winning the Illinir will not only bring her the fame and fortune to keep her family’s farm, but will give her the ability to free her father from forced indentured servitude. For Arielle, a Kinnish refugee, winning means having the ability to earn an honest living as a licensed enchanter so she can continue sending money home to her family. For Damien, he yearns to end the seemingly endless wars that have claimed so many lives, to enact social change that would allow Kinnish people, his people, to live freely as equal members of society without fear of their Sendish neighbors who blame the Kinnish for the war and bloodshed, and finally to earn him his rightful place at the head of his family.

Using a variety of skills, luck, and magic, this intrepid team builds the perfect horse - a golem capable of surmounting the obstacles in the treacherous Illinir. However, finishing the race is only the beginning. What the team isn’t ready for is the political quagmire into which they are about to plunge, the betrayals that are about to come barreling down the racetrack, and the magic behaving in ways that no one understands or can explain. All of which lead into a very thrilling conclusion followed by a cliffhanger which will leave the reader desperate for volume two.

Kalyn Josephson has accomplished a feat - she’s created a fantastical world using pieces of Jewish folklore, identity, history, and culture without ever identifying Judaism as its source, and without making the book feel appropriated or uncomfortable. This book weaves together the threads of mysticism and magic to create a beautiful, rich world that draws the readers in and doesn’t let go - even at the very end. While an unusual choice for the Sydney Taylor Book Award, it should not be underestimated. Frankly, this reviewer would relish the idea that this book could be a competitor. Regardless, all fantasy lovers will be clamoring for this one.

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Reviewer Cheryl Fox Strausberg has spent the past 10 years as a school librarian in Jewish schools - most recently at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland. She talks about Jewish books and Jewish representation on Instagram as @kvellinlibrarian.