June CL Tan on her new YA urban fantasy novel, Darker By Four

"With the lack of control and feeling of helplessness and also the need for some fun escapism, something just clicked in my head, so I picked up these two story-idea threads and weaved them together."


Brilliantly gritty and utterly addictive, Darker By Four, June CL Tan’s new YA urban fantasy novel, lures its readers into a shadowy world that – despite its demons and deadly secrets – they won’t want to escape. Brimming with vengeance, action and emotion, and starring a fabulous cast of morally grey characters, Darker By Four is a superb crafted story and one that’ll leave you craving more. To celebrate its release, we had the joy of speaking with June all about her writing journey, inspirations and more.

Hi June! It’s such a pleasure to have you on the site today to celebrate the release of your new YA urban fantasy novel (and one of my favourite fantasy reads of the year so far), Darker By Four. For readers who may just be learning about the book, how would you best describe it to them?

Darker By Four is about a vengeful girl, the black sheep of an illustrious magical family, a grim reaper searching for his lost King (aka death god), and an eccentric mage with a mysterious past whose paths cross just as the destruction of the barrier between the mortal realm and the underworld is imminent. Secrets are kept, lies are told, dangerous deals are struck, and oh, there’s a star-crossed slow burn romance and an enemies to situationship side pairing in this book too.

Shadowhunters meets Chinese underworld mythology is the “official” pitch and it reflects the story really well. Adding to that, this Asian fantasy would appeal to fans of period C-dramas in the wuxia (martial arts) and xianxia (immortal fantasy) genre, and fantasy K-dramas like Goblin, My Demon, and Alchemy of Souls, I think. Underneath all of that though, I’d say it’s also a story about a group of young people trying to come to terms with childhood trauma, and figuring out who they really are and feeling confident in that, flaws and all.

The concept for Darker By Four was brilliantly unique and exciting. Can you tell us a little bit about your inspirations behind it and how the story came about?

Thank you so much! A myriad of things inspired me… Some time back, I tinkered with two story ideas: a story where a protagonist loses their magic/power at the start and an epic romance that spans lifetimes. It was during a difficult period of my life when I was undergoing chemotherapy a few years back that I went back to these two ideas, and because of what I was going through. With the lack of control and feeling of helplessness and also the need for some fun escapism, something just clicked in my head, so I picked up these two story-idea threads and weaved them together.

I’ve always loved the angst and emotional rollercoaster ride of a slow-burn, star-crossed romance, and if it’s about reincarnated soulmates, it has my whole heart. I think this stems from how many epic love stories in Chinese literature, media, and legends have similar traits, and those were the romances I grew up with. I also wrote Darker By Four as sort of a modern take on xianxia elements like magic cultivation and deviation, demon/monster-hunting, and immortals meddling with the lives of mortals, because it was something I wanted to read myself and a fantastical world I wanted to escape into.

I was also inspired by the myth of the Ten Courts of Hell and various iterations of it in Chinese underworld mythology. My curiosity and interest in the Ten Courts started when I was a child because of a visit to Haw Par Villa in Singapore. It’s an almost century-old cultural theme park filled with dioramas and sculptures depicting various myths and legends in Chinese folklore, and it has a dedicated exhibit about the Ten Courts of Hell, and it freaked me out as a child, and I guess that’s where that lasting impression came from.

Aesthetic and setting wise, I knew I wanted the story to be modern and sleek, even a touch futuristic even though there’s classic fantasy magic in it. I looked to donghua (Chinese animation) and anime for this, and when I was editing the book, some inspiration came from my favorites like BLEACH, Tokyo Ghoul, Noragami, and Jujutsu Kaisen. At the end of the day though, I just wanted to write something fun and indulgent.


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How do you think you’d fare if you were to enrol in Xingshan Academy?

Unfortunately, I think I might fare badly because I’m not athletic at all, and the cadets have to be excellent at martial arts and sparring. But if my magic were naturally strong, then perhaps I’d do okay since magical prowess can be trained and is the other component to being a top student at Xingshan Academy. I would make good friends though – that I’m sure about.

From emotional declarations to epic battles, Darker By Four has is all. Are there any scenes you’re particularly excited to get readers reactions to?

I wish you could see my (slightly evil) grin right now! I paid a lot of attention to the structuring of the action and fight scenes in Darker By Four, in terms of the choreography, making it as visual as possible with my current skill set, as well as embedding dialogue that heightens both tension and atmosphere, so I’d be curious to see reader reactions to that.

I’m also excited to observe reader reactions to a few scenes here and there when twists happen, but I think I’m most excited about a pivotal emotional scene toward the end of the book, when a certain someone says a certain something. Early reader responses to the battle scenes and emotional scenes have been amazing and very motivational to push me to continuously improve my craft. I hope those scenes will land well as the book reaches a wider audience.

Jumping off that; having absolutely adored all three POV’s in Darker By Four, I was wondering if there was a specific character you especially enjoyed writing or one you found more challenging?

I enjoyed writing all of them, especially Rui. She’s been through so much, and has this hard grumpy shell that hides a soft mushy centre. There’s a lot of idealism under that cynicism, and it was fun to find ways to show this through her relationships with other characters, and how her behaviour is affected by the plot and subplot.

The most challenging character to write was Yiran. He has a complex and complicated personality that was more difficult to show on the page. He’s similar to Rui in a way as they both put on a front, a mask to the world, and only reveal their inner self to very few people. Unlike Rui, I’d say Yiran is more morally grey and more selfish as a person. Most of that is rooted in his own insecurity and the circumstances of the family he was born into. The challenge was in developing and writing him so that while he’s not the most “likeable” character, he’s very real and raw in a way that readers can at least feel some sympathy or empathy toward him.

Are there any YA fantasy novels releasing this year that you think should be on everyone’s TBR alongside Darker By Four?

Off the top of my head, I’m excited about A Crane Among Wolves by June Hur, Crimson Moth by Kristen Ciccarelli, Off With Their Heads by Zoe Hana Mikuta, and The Last Blood Carver by Vanessa Le.

The ending of Darker By Four had me aching for more. Without any spoilers; is there anything you can tell us about the sequel to keep us going until its release?

Hmmm… I guess I can tell you that there will be one POV switch, and we’ll finally get to see things from the perspective of an interesting character from book 1!

Finally, what would your dream spiritual weapon look like?

What a fun question! I don’t know if I have a specific dream spiritual weapon, but out of all the spiritual weapons that have been mentioned in Darker By Four so far, I think I’d like to use Zizi’s weapon because I think it’s super cool aesthetically. Whether it’s the most effective one is a different question altogether though hahaha.

Get your copy of Darker by Four by June C.L. Tan here.

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