As a bruideag, a witch seen as a plague by others because their magic lies in elements such as hexes and pain, Keller is seen and used as a weapon. When he came into his powers, he had his family’s love to ground him and his pleasure in his dark magic, but after a curse took them out of reach, he succumbed to its darkness and became a heartless monster. As a member of the Zayne coven, a family of witches who guard (and hoard) one of the strongest energy vortices, Keller is chained to the coven leader, Vivian, as her personal assassin through the promise of a spell to end his suffering. At her mysterious death, Keller is happy to see her go and desperate to be named keeper of their Book of Shadows. However, Vivian holds fast to her control, even from the grave, as she’s bespelled the book so only the son no one knew she had can open it. What’s worse is that the spell to refresh the wards is inside and they will fall in a little over a week, leaving the coven vulnerable to every witch who hates them and covets their control of the vortex. Keller’s certain he can find and kidnap Dylan quickly, but he proves to be resistant to Keller’s magic and the possessor of a gift no one has seen in centuries.
After the death of his mother when he was eighteen, Dylan’s world fell apart. Now twenty-four, he has made a life for himself in the small Ohio town of Willowick. Naturally a social butterfly, Dylan is beloved by everyone who knows him because of his sunny disposition and constant smile—a smile that covers up the agonizing loneliness and grief that threaten to swallow him whole. When Keller walks into the coffee shop where he works, Dylan is instantly attracted, as he’s always gone for bad boys. Despite Keller not fitting the normal aesthetic in his pristine suits and immaculately put-together presentation, the cool calculation in his eyes and aura of danger alerts Dylan that he may be the baddest bad boy he’s ever met. While he is tantalized, Dylan’s sixth sense advises caution, and when Keller’s subtly menacing seduction turns into outright danger and nonsense about witches, Dylan tries to escape. Unfortunately, his efforts are thwarted when confronted with indisputable proof that he’s a witch and an extremely powerful necromancer at that.
With Keller offering his only shot at understanding his deadly magical abilities and a chance at having family again, Dylan reluctantly goes to South Carolina. When he meets his relatives, he quickly learns that Keller is the only one he can trust. Faced with disturbing and almost uncontrollable powers he doesn’t want, relatives who’d sap the magic from his body to open the book if they could, and a guide whose version of teaching involves emotional torture and terror, Dylan is fast sinking with no harbor in site. However, with the clock ticking, Dylan has no room to breathe nor make mistakes, but mistakes are inevitable and his may cost them everything.
Many stories featuring dark magic practitioners make them one-note villains, so I enjoyed that Light From the Grave has a spectrum of black magic users—from the darkness of space evil variety to Dylan’s dangerous but (mostly) under control darkness. Black magic in this world is inherently evil; yet, having black magic doesn’t determine one’s soul and how it manifests is a function of the practitioner’s choices. This is seen clearly in Keller and Dylan and in the dysfunctional Zayne coven. While they are mostly dark magic users, they aren’t evil; they’re generally just self-absorbed assholes—the kind of rude, dismissive relatives you hate inviting to family gatherings, except they’re able to use magic to cause hurt and establish the pecking order instead of just words. At first, Keller and Dylan present as yin and yang, remorseless killer and selfless saver of cats, but they are more similar than that, sharing the same emotional core—unrelenting grief. Neither has dealt with their losses; it shapes their lived experiences and its consuming darkness fuels their magical abilities.
However, they chose opposite paths to manage it; Dylan hides his pain and inner darkness behind a smile and surrounds himself with love, while Keller had nothing but heartache and let it fuel his rage until it cooled into brutal ice. Keller thinks he’s a monster with every sliver of good burned out of him, but the remnants show subtly in his relationship with his mentee and are uncovered when his feelings for Dylan deepen from detached fascination to actual affection. Though the growth and trust Keller and Dylan inspire in one another is important to the story, Dylan learning to harness and make peace with his necromancy and the duality of his nature is the focus of the narrative, with the countdown to the coven’s annihilation the threat that motivates Dylan’s (and Keller’s) journey to emotional healing. The majority of the story is him struggling with powers that can subsume him and his trials highlighting his untapped strength, as well as Keller’s buried humanity. Their relationship happens under a pressure cooker and, though fast, I enjoyed that there is realistic distrust, frustration, and hardship, as the unapologetic weapon that Keller is collides with Dylan’s moral compass. I also appreciated that Dylan’s depression isn’t “cured” and that his dark magic isn’t (completely) turned into rainbows and kittens, nor is Keller’s, though he is more changed in behavior than Dylan.
The Zayne coven too are very important characters, delightfully messy and varying degrees of unstable. Vivian’s viciousness and iron-fisted control is immediately apparent; the way she casually threatens her coven, her family, with almost certain death and how she bends them to her will only to yank away the salvation she offers is formidable, terrifying, and suggests that her siblings never stood a chance—cruelty was their language of survival. The family’s morally dark gray and warped interactions and sensibilities create a threatening madhouse dynamic that is almost as harmful to Dylan as his powers; plus, imminent demise is his reward for meeting and trying to help his relatives. My main quibble with the story is that, to me, they choose a nuclear option over one that is easily accomplishable in order to set-up the climax. There’s a difference in making a choice between bad options or at least justifying why the worst one is chosen without considering the better one. However, it was easy for me put aside to watch the events play out. I think enjoyment of Light relies heavily on investment in Dylan’s crisis and how Vivian’s machinations may destroy her coven. YMMV regarding the length of the book and its pacing, because a lot of the story is trauma wrapped up in paranormal training, broken up by more danger, squabbles, a wife-in-the-attic style relative, a spying spider, and playful bobcats. While I found that it works to establish atmosphere, the depth of development needed to encompass both Dylan’s light nature and dark magic, Keller’s slow shift into allowing softer emotions back in, and making the threat tangible, I can see how it may not work for others.
Personally, I found the magic use and it’s nuances well done; the wary, feral cat energy among the coven’s relationships compelling; the twists well thought out and executed; and Dylan and Keller’s overcast sunny and almost-dead-inside grumpy dynamic and the beginnings of their emotional healing (eventually) touching. If you’re in the mood for dark magic, a monstrous killer who only levels-up to anti-hero, and a young man who’s never been as light as everyone thinks, Light From the Grave may be for you.