October 17, 2020

Ilsa J. Bick: "Draw the Dark"

Title: Draw the Dark  [on Amazon | on Goodreads]
Series: None
Author: Ilsa J. Bick [Site | Goodreads]
Genres: Supernatural, Contemporary with a Twist, Thriller or Mystery
Year: 2010
Age: 14+
Stars: 4.5/5
Pros: Original, well-crafted mix of paranormal/supernatural, mystery and modern history. Believable main character. Incorporates painting in a fascinating manner.
Cons: Requires more suspension of disbelief for a couple of mundane events than for the supernatural ones. The open ending may not sit well with everyone.
WARNING! Death and violence/gore.
Will appeal to: Fans of books off the beaten path. Art and history lovers. Everyone who enjoys a dark but ultimately hopeful story.

Blurb: There are things the people of Winter, Wisconsin, would rather forget. The year the Nazis came to town, for one. That fire, for another. But what they'd really like to forget is Christian Cage. Seventeen-year-old Christian's parents disappeared when he was a little boy. Ever since, he's drawn obsessively: his mother's face...her eyes...and what he calls "the sideways place", where he says his parents are trapped. Christian figures if he can just see through his mother's eyes, maybe he can get there somehow and save them. But Christian also draws other things. Ugly things. Evil things. Dark things. Things like other people's fears and nightmares. Their pasts. Their destiny. There's one more thing the people of Winter would like to forget: murder. But Winter won’t be able to forget the truth, no matter how hard it tries. Not as long as Christian draws the dark... (Amazon)

Review: As I said above, this is a book that will appeal (among other people) to art and history lovers. Then again, I know very little about art, and I'm not a fan of stories set in the past (like part of this one is)...and I was hooked. I guess there's no better testament to the power of this particular narrative and its author's skills 😉.


Let's get it out of the way: this is NOT the story of a boy who pines for his parents (or better, his mother, since his father disappeared when he was too young to remember him) and embarks on a supernatural journey in order to find them/get them back. Though the "sideways place" where Christian's parents allegedly vanished is indeed a recurring theme, and the protagonist's obsession with finding his mother will play a surprising part in the narrative, this is NOT the story that Bick wants to tell. So, while on a level I can sympathise with those readers who felt robbed of a thrilling reading experience, I'd say that there's enough to love in this book for what it is - not to mention, for once the blurb didn't lie 😉. DTD is, at its core, the story of a boy and his demons, his uncanny ability to tune in to other people (under special circumstances, that is, and at a price for both him and them), and his loneliness despite having someone in his life who loves him (if not necessarily understands him); at the same time, it's the story of a small town with a penchant for burying its secrets, especially those rooted in a shameful and painful past. Its unique blend of supernatural/paranormal, mystery and the "ordinary" life of a damaged teen, along with strong characterisation, provides enough entertainment (if dark) and generates enough emotion without the need for it to add a metaphysical quest to the list. [...]


Painting and history are major players in this novel, and I loved how they were incorporated into it. I'm not going to talk much about the first, because there's more to it than the blurb spoils, and I'd rather anyone who might feel inspired by my review to pick up this book went into it with as little information as possible, in order to better enjoy its twists and turns. I will comment, though, that the art here isn't just a conduit for Christian's visions, and he isn't just someone who dabbles in it: he does know his stuff, and occasionally references painters and styles without sounding like an encyclopedia. As for history, Bick wove a few different (and often obscure) threads from the WWII era together, mostly originated around the absolutely real small town she set her book in, and came up with a whole, unique tale. From German POWs (Prisoners of War), to the Jewish immigration in Wisconsin and the construction of a now long-gone shul in the area, to a huge, bloody strike against Kohler Co. in 1934, they all found their counterpart in DTD, and came together to create the backdrop for the local incident Christian both "visits" and researches. If you're interested in a more thorough exposition of the facts Bick drew (ha!) inspiration from, you can read her answer to my specific question.


I mentioned earlier in my review how the characters are strong and well-developed, with the possible exception of Dekker, who's basically a bully - well, a psycho - without a cause. I can understand where he's coming from about Christian, since the two of them have history, but when he ultimately flips off, there are other casualties involved in a bad way, and it's difficult to understand how an individual can have gone so far off the deep end at such a young age that he would even stop caring about self-preservation. It's even more difficult, though, to fathom how a whole town can sit and watch a teen go mental without moving a finger. On the other hand, I can't complain too much, since Dekker does keep the plot going, even if at the cost of my suspending disbelief a little 😉. Same for Dr. Rainier, Christian's psychologist, who has a tendency to go off-script more often than not, and gets a tad too involved in his life to perform her duty the way she's supposed to - but then again, she's a sympathetic, open-minded character who plays a major role in Christian's coming to term with himself (also, Bick's bio says she's a child psychiatrist, so there may be more truth in Dr. Rainer's representation than a layman would think). Basically, these are the only quibbles I have with a novel that, otherwise, I can't praise enough for its originality, depth and daring attitude - not to mention its pairing supernatural horrors with the ones humanity brings upon itself.

For more books that defy categories click here.


  1. A psycho bully, well there's something you don't read about too often. Dekker sounds terrible. But this book sounds interesting with some of the other characters too.

    1. LOL, yes, usually it's either psychos OR bullies. This is indeed an interesting book both story-wise and character-wise.

  2. I always like when authors highlight lesser known things. Be it events, places, or people, I enjoy learning something new.

    1. She did it in a way that even people who aren't drawn to history (um, like yours truly) will be fascinated.

  3. I don't think I'd enjoy this (I think I told you that I had a bad experience with another book by the author, Ashes), but I'm so glad you loved this despite the small issues you had. I always feel like it's not too hard to suspend my disbelief IF the novel is otherwise excellent.. and this seems like it was for you. Great review! :)

    1. No, you didn't tell me that! I haven't read the Ashes trilogy (it isn't available where I buy my books cash-on-delivery), so I can't even discuss the book with you. Sorry it didn't work for you though! And thank you as always 😘.

  4. The book actually sounds more interesting as a story about a boy and his demons rather than your average, predictable thrilling read. I'd rather read about the dark sides of people and their emotions rather than an external 'monster' so to speak. Wow, this book sounds a lot like The Goldfinch since that was also about art/history, a boy grieveing parents and morals. I love spooky reads. I'm definitley adding this one to my list.

    1. The premise does have a lot in common with The Goldfinch, but it's a completely different book (judging from the synopsis - I haven't read it). I hope you'll like it though!

  5. That cover tells me right away that this book is dark!
    Wow, you have really made me interested in this book, Roberta! I love your writing style in this review - I haven’t read this, but I get the sense that you have captured the essence of it with your descriptions, especially in the “Just the Way You Are” paragraph.
    I don’t know much about art, but I do love books that feature it in their plots, so I want to pick this up soon!
    PS. You got a smile out of me with your “drawing inspiration” pun :)

    1. "I get the sense that you have captured the essence of it with your descriptions, especially in the “Just the Way You Are” paragraph."
      Thank you! Comments like this really make my day 💚. I tried my best, that's for sure. And I'm glad my pun made you smile!

      I hope that you'll pick up this one and let me know what you thought of it! And of course, I hope that you'll actually enjoy it LOL.

  6. Sounds quite good and a bit dark. I think a skillful author can pull off a tale where the premise seems to be one thing but the author doesn't necessarily focus on that, but draws the more real world stuff in and makes it absolutely compelling. Mixing genres like that can take a lot of skill to accomplish.

    1. Exactly! Sometimes readers feel disappointed when they get something different from what they thought they would, and it impacts their ratings/reviews. I knew what I was getting, because I had read a bunch of reviews before buying this, but I'd probably have liked the book anyway, because she pulled it off masterfully.


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