This is a somewhat difficult review to write, because while there are hints throughout to the existence of various supernatural elements, they are not revealed in full until about halfway through the story, and they play a major part in the plot. The Goodreads synopsis does not specify them, so I won't either. (The prologue does actually specify the what, but not the who.)
The setting is World War 1-era England. This makes me think of Downton Abbey, and anything that makes me think of Downton Abbey makes me happy (with the exception of that ridiculous season two.) Eleanore (Lora) Jones, the heroine, could best be described as scrappy. She was a strange little girl; a ten-year-old orphan, speechless and with no memory of her earlier life. She was taken into an orphanage where her oddness caused her to be ostracized and abused, under the guise of treatment. She heard sounds and music that no one else heard. A strange, menacing voice spoke only to her. She protected herself by closing herself to others, and by sixteen, she learned to fake the persona of a “normal” girl sufficiently to trick the doctor at the orphanage who previously diagnosed her with “adolescent feminine hysteria.”
When the orphanage was bombed by the Germans, the children were sent to other orphanages, but Lora was selected as a “charity student” to attend a prestigious boarding school. She encounters prissy, privileged, bullying girls, but her struggles left her very well-prepared to deal with them.
There's a love triangle, of course. Two boys vie for Lora's attention: the poor, sweet boy to whom Lora takes an instant liking, and the rich boy initially viewed by Lora as an adversary. Like Lora, both boys are not exactly what they seem. I was pleased that the author managed to make both boys viable romantic options, a frequent stumbling block for other writers.
The writing in The Sweetest Dark is quite lovely and a nice match for the time period and the mysteries of the story. When the supernatural elements were fully revealed, I was taken by surprise and somewhat confused. However, I'm a first-time reader of Shana Abe, and from reading other reviews, people familiar with her works did not have the same reaction.
The ending was a combination of sweetness and heartbreak, although the epilogue provides some hope and sets the stage nicely for a sequel.
A note about the title: I thought it was quite cheesy and more appropriate for a tawdry romance novel, but then I read this quote from the book: “Those nights, in the sweetest dark, we shared our dreams. That's your answer. I was stitched into yours, and you were stitched into mine, and that was real, I promise you.” Sigh. All was forgiven.
Disclosure - I was provided with a ARC of this book from the publisher.