Time and again, I keep saying it: give me the stories about stories, the metafiction, all of it. Kill Your Darlings by L.E. Harper is another spin on this idea. Along with a heavy (in many senses of the word) focus on mental health, this is a story about figuring out who you want to be when everyone is telling you who they think you are. This is a debut novel, and the rough edges that often come with that show. Aside from that, I enjoyed the story and the attempts that Harper makes to go deep on sensitive issues. I received an eARC from NetGalley in exchange for my review.
An author living in New York City wakes up to find herself inhabiting the body of Kyla Starblade, the protagonist of her fantasy series set in another world. “Kyla” quickly explains to the other characters in this book what’s up, but it’s immaterial—the Shadow War that they have been fighting for the past four books will stop for no one, and it’s up to her to vanquish the dark lord and save the day. There’s just one problem: in the original ending to this story, as written by this author, all of these principal characters die. Can she change what she has written, and in so doing, find her way back home?
An author finding themselves transported into their world isn’t the most original premise, but it has been a while since I’ve seen precisely this sort of twist on it. Additionally, Harper leaves the nature of this transposition ultimately unresolved: it could be a “quantum magical” entanglement, or it could be the narrator simply hallucinating everything. Did she create this world, or did she merely perceive its events from Earth, an interdimensional clairvoyant? The ultimate answer is irrelevant because it’s the journey that is important.
This is a story that is clearly, unapologetically about mental health and in particular about depression and suicide ideation—there are trigger warnings up front, and I have to say, they are justified. The book contains graphic descriptions of a mechanism of suicide, so practise self-care when deciding whether to read this book.
This layer to the story is both thematically and narratively important. The narrator is unreliable—there are a few twists near the end that, when revealed, subtly shift the reader’s interpretation of the situation. She lies to us but also to herself. Indeed, in her role as the hero of this world, the narrator feels the pressure to win against the dark lord, who is constantly telling her that she isn’t good enough. This is all too similar to what the narrator’s own brain has told her repeatedly over the years, resulting in her withdrawing from community with the people who care about her.
We don’t get to know the narrator’s world nearly as well as we do the fantasy one. There are a few stolen glimpses, but beyond that it is entirely what the narrator divulges through exposition—mainly how some of her book’s characters are modelled after her close friends, people she has since pushed away or ignored. At first, when the book opened with the narrator already in Kyla’s body in her fantasy world, I wished that we had flashbacks to the narrator’s life in NYC. Then again, I think I understand what Harper was going for here: depression is of the mind. Although circumstances can exacerbate it, the narrator isn’t depressed because of what she has experienced in her life—she’s depressed because her brain chemistry is out of whack. So it does make sense, thematically, for Kill Your Darlings to take place entirely in the narrator’s head (whether or not it is also taking place in another reality), separate from her own external world. There’s an appealing subjectivity to this storytelling.
Similarly, I appreciate that Harper doesn’t spend chapters upon chapters of the narrator trying to dupe everyone into thinking she is Kyla. She basically comes right out and says it right away, and the book’s pacing is much better for it. As it is, I think there were moments of uneven pacing—in particular, the middle was a bit of a slog. The story is very much about the narrator overcoming her self-doubt and other inner demons. As a result, the cornucopia of external threats often took a back seat in terms of the actual threat they seemed to pose to the characters. This is the trouble when you posit that a group of people might or might not be “real” in fiction—you have to be really careful to somehow maintain the stakes and our desire to sympathize with those characters. Do I care about the Kyla as much as the narrator? Is Kyla’s survival as important as the narrator’s here? These kinds of metaphysical considerations are fun but can also distract a reader from the mental-health themes at the core of the book.
Finally, I of course have to comment positively on the portrayal of a queernorm world (which is pretty subtle) and the narrator as an asexual character. The latter part is important given that Kyla is not asexual—Kyla has a very lusty love interest indeed, and some of the conflict comes from the narrator feeling romantically drawn to this character despite feeling no sexual attraction. I really liked how Harper is careful to establish that the narrator’s asexuality is not part of her being “broken,” despite what her brain might tell her. Her asexuality is wrapped up in her loneliness and isolation, which I think is an appropriate commentary on how the discrimination and erasure that ace people face in our society can converge with mental illness. This is just one more way, in other words, that the narrator feels isolated, even though her asexuality is in and of itself a valid experience.
All in all, Kill Your Darlings has its engrossing and interesting moments. Harper definitely made me want to keep reading and find out what happens next, both to the narrator and this fantasy world that she has created. I also like its very overt commentary on mental illness. While the writing itself—particularly the pacing and the challenges of pathos given the story—could be improved, it’s still a thoughtful and worthy story.