A Drop of Night is a book that should have hit all the right notes: tension, historical setting, modern angst, etc. But the end result was a muddled mess: shallow characterizations, listless ‘tension’, mindless ‘traps’, and a very muddled plot. At times, I felt like I was reading a melange: pour one part historical, one part “The Cube” movie, one part modern YA cliche, and one part pseudo science fiction – and set the blender on puree. Nothing ever really coalesced into a coherent and riveting plot.
Story: In revolutionary years France, an aristocrat builds a huge underground palace in order to hide his family from the horrors of “The Terror”. Young Aurelie flees from the mob to her father’s secret palace – but doesn’t understand why her mother would rather die than go down there. Meanwhile, in present day America, 5 teens (including protagonist Anouk) are chosen for a special archaeological expedition to a recently discovered underground palace. None are sure why they were chosen but they are all eager for an all expense-paid trip to France to explore hidden wonders. But when they get there, things start to go very wrong.
Clearly, this is based off the movie The Cube – in which a group of individuals with very specialized skill sets are pitted against a trapped prison labyrinth they must escape or die trying. The hook of the movie was that the people were uniquely suited for the elaborate and imaginative puzzles – from a mathematical genius to a rugged policeman. But the problem with Drop of Night is that none of the puzzles were imaginative – nor did they make much sense for the time period in which they were developed. Yes, with modern day scientific knowledge we can figure out elaborate traps to make out of natural objects such as magnets. But that knowledge wasn’t really widely available back in Terror France – (e.g., genetics). I didn’t believe any of it.
Another problem was that an underground palace would take years to create and certain not go unnoticed. You don’t hire loads of craftsmen and laborers without anyone noticing – people talk. Similarly, there were many plot holes that left me shaking my head at the end. It wasn’t just the retro-active science that bothered. It was the question of why someone would build a booby trapped underground lair (to protect against the mob) when the booby traps could only kill 1-2 people at a time. They would have been overrun soon enough by the peasants.
But the real problem for me really came down to the characters – they were lacking nuance and depth. I didn’t believe in any of them or even really like them. Author Bachmann clearly wanted us to like them by the end once they have gone through hardships and divested themselves of their false personas. But whether the characters were in the past or the present, I just didn’t find any reason to want to follow them.
Although the book is nearly 500 pages, they do go fast. Most of the book is spent running around without much planning (a big disappointment to me because I wanted to read a story of teens outwitting the palace, rather than having them stumbling around). There are reveals through to the end and some attempts at plot twists that honestly left me scratching my head. But the big hole is that the palace should have been a character in itself – and it just wasn’t forme. So although not a terrible book by any means, it just fell flat for me. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.