BookTok followers certainly ticked the box for Alex Aster’s Lightlark. It earned her a six-figure advance and a movie deal! Is this the way forward for book marketing?
Published by: Amulet, 2022. Available from Amazon.
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‘Lightlark’: the plot
Lightlark is about a fantasy island that appears once in a hundred years. Six rulers come to the island to take part in the Centennial Games to rid their realms of curses. One of them will die, along with his or her realm. Among the six rulers to perform in the games is Isla, ruler of the Wildings. She has been groomed for this event throughout her life. She knows how to fight, she has been taught how to survive all manner of extreme conditions. Throughout the complicated twists of the plot Isla is clever and inventive and very strong, but her closely kept secret is that, unlike the other competing rulers, she has no powers. Will her skill be enough to save her life?
(Please note that Lightlark is not to be confused with Larklight, a trilogy by the very successful author Philip Reeves.)
The hype behind ‘Lightlark’
The story of Lightlark’s publication is almost as fantastical as the plot of the novel. Alex Aster’s book had been rejected by twelve publishers, and her agent had refused any further attempts to sell it, so Alex decided to use social media to arouse interest in it. She put out a video on BookTok, and received a massive response. Over a million viewers told her yes, they loved the idea. They wanted to read that book.
Lightlark then went to auction, and within a week a six-figure offer from Abrams books was accepted, with film rights also secured. The hype had certainly paid off.
Alex Aster didn’t abandon her huge following on BookTok. During the process of completing the novel she put out several video teasers, and she even involved her followers in the final selection of the cover.
Alex Aster commented on her BookTok success in an interview with RB Media: ‘I find it very positive. It shows that we’re all on the same side and we just want to read great stories.’
But what exactly is BookTok, I wondered?
I hadn’t heard of BookTok till I read about Alex Aster’s success, but millions of young booklovers have. It’s a branch of the popular TikTok app, but focusses on books, mainly Young Adult fiction of every genre, in particular fantasy and romance. Reviews, discussions and recommendations are presented as videos. If readers love a book so much that they want to share their thoughts about it, BookTok is the place to do it. If authors want to promote their books to readers, reviewers and publishers, it seems that BookTok is the right platform.
Alex Aster was not new to TikTok; in fact as a digital creator her videos have had over a 100 milllion views. So in her BookTok video she was talking to an already huge fanbase. She is author of the Emblem Island series and has won many accolades and awards for her work. She is of Latin American extraction and attributes her storytelling abilities to listening as a child to her abuelita’s (little grandmother’s) stories.
The BookTok video
I thought I knew what a writer’s promotional video looks like; in fact I’ve created some myself on my website or for publishers. Usually the author is facing a camera, possibly on their own phone. They’re probably in their own study or favourite place, smilingly chatting about their new book, showing the cover, reading a line or two from it.
Alex Aster’s BookTok video is like a film promotion, slick, glossy, highly polished and very, very professional.
And it’s very seductive.
It’s where novel and movie, author and film star meet.
It’s why BookTok is powerful, and why reviewers, publishers and film scouts take it very seriously. And it is a totally new and perhaps worrying development in the history of publishing. Very few authors have the means or desire to find a publisher or to promote their books in this way. Is it the best way to discover great fiction for young readers?
My thoughts on ‘Lightlark’
Fantasy about Games of Power is almost a genre in itself, it has become so popular. I’m not very familiar with it, but I was interested to know why it’s so appealing to the young adult reader. In particular, I wanted to know if Lightlark lives up to the hype. Literature, particularly fantasy literature, has always loved the theme of power and rivalry, from the Greek Myths onwards. Power is another word for magic: if you have a power, you can do anything. But if just one person has power or powers the story is boring: it’s just a way of moving a plot along, getting the character out of a tight corner. Power Games are much more exciting and inclusive, and that’s where Lightlark both soars and falls.
Like The Hunger Games, with which it will always be compared, one person’s power is pitted against another’s. Repeatedly. The stakes are very serious. In Lightlark, one of the six competitors will die, and her/his realm will die too.
At times I was very impressed by the vivid description of fantastic settings and situations, and by the dramatic twists of plot. The author is highly skilful. The novel is fast-paced and clearly written with a film series in mind. (Universal Pictures bought it before it was published.)
There are some very interesting characters, particularly the two male leads, Grim the Ruler of Nightshade, and Oro, the dying king. But in the end the author seems to have lost control. The plot twists of the denouement are imaginative but confusing; too many new devices introduced in rapid succession leave the reader baffled, stunned, and a bit impatient.
However, I’m not a fourteen-year-old girl. Gorgeous costume changes, sexual romance, friendship, danger, and a very feisty heroine will make Lightlark a compelling read to many lovers of Y/A fantasy.
“Know this,” the oracle said. “There are lies and liars all around you, Isla Crown.” Lies and liars. Who? “And one of the six rulers will indeed be dead before the hundred days are over.” Which ruler? Did that mean the curses would be broken?
Some of Isla’s opponents are satisfyingly seductive and interesting, as for instance Grim the Ruler of Nightshade:
“I could open a black hole that would swallow the beach. I could turn the sea dark as ink and kill everything inside of it. I could demolish the castle, brick by brick, from where we stand. I could take you back to Nightshade lands with me right now.” His voice was deep as dreams, dark as nightmares. “I could do all of those things.” His lips pressed against the top of her ear, for just a moment. “And I might – if I didn’t think you would hate me for it.”
Isla’s relationship with the dying king Oro is the most interesting of all, the two characters being mutually manipulative. But many of the other characters by comparison are flat and under-developed.
Lightlark is a quick read, in spite of its length. I liked the fact that it is strongly visual. Isla is a strong character heading a cast of liars, deceivers, lovers, who confuse and betray in turn. The author has a wonderful imagination and a riveting ability to intrigue and surprise her readers.
Did I enjoy reading Lightlark? Yes, I did, for the most part.
Will I watch the movie? Probably. I’d like to see how the novel is developed and realised.
Would I recommend it? I already have done, to a lover of the genre.
Will I read the next book in the series? No. I’ve had enough.
For younger readers
Younger lovers of fantasy fiction about alternative worlds will enjoy The Song that Sings Us by Nicola Davies.
My own book Spellhorn is a fantasy for 9+ readers.
Over to you
Have you read Lightlark? I’d love to know your views on some of the issues I’ve raised in this blog. Please put your thoughts in the comments box below.