Every three years since his sister Ava’s third birthday, the demons have come for her. Each time, they’ve barely escaped. Now they’re coming up on the eve of her twelfth birthday, and Aiden worries that this will be the time he can’t protect her. He will do anything to protect her, but when two vastly different girls enter his life, he can’t seem to shake them from his mind. It doesn’t help that he’s beginning to realize that it may not be his sister who needs the protection, but Aiden himself. Darkness Brutal is as much a story of the supernatural and protecting his sister as it is a story of self-discovery and coming of age. Aiden’s always known his role as protector, but he’s never really considered his own role in the paranormal world around him. He has all these abilities that he seems to have been born with and he doesn’t often use them curiously. As events move out of his control and he learns that darkness seems to follow at every turn, Aiden must come to terms with what it means to have these abilities and who that makes him.
Darkness Brutal is the first novel in a planned series by Rachel A. Marks. Although the characters in the novel are human, they are all blessed, or cursed–although it depends on who you ask–with some sort of power that reeks of the supernatural. Whether it’s the ability to see the past of objects or to even see ghosts and demons themselves, these powers give them an extra edge in solving paranormal cases. It isn’t always as simple as it seems. When Aiden joins their team, it is in the hope he’ll be able to keep his sister safe. He’s afraid of her growing powers and also has to deal with changes within himself. But after years of surviving on their own, he can’t bring himself to trust them fully.
Aiden, the protagonist in Darkness Brutal, is pretty foul-mouthed. Ever since his mom died he’s tried to avoid the foster system. His brief stint in it convinced him that he was better off on his own. He’s forged a layer of armor that he wears over his skin, armor that is made of sarcasm, distrust, and anger. I really enjoyed him. I don’t often read books with male protagonists (at least, not in first person), and he was a great break from female protagonists who often fall into the same box. It was something new, even if he was a jerk. It was refreshing when he noticed how he was acting and adjusted. Aiden was very self-aware of the people around him and tried to treat them with respect even when he was feeling backed into a corner. More importantly, for me at least, was he treated the young women around him with respect. I’ve repeated myself, but that’s how much I appreciated it. Aiden’s multitude of powers have aided in protecting his sister and himself. He’s pretty much covered when every anything comes up. He read the emotions of people around him, a tool that comes in handy when he needs to control situations. He also has an encylopedic knowledge of demonology and can understand and read several ancient languages just by looking at them. I would love to be able to do that. The trade-off, however, is seeing demons, so it may not be worth it.
Every character in Darkness Brutal has some manner of backstory. Some are more detailed than others, which directly correlated with how much I cared about them. If there’s anyone who’s had a tougher life than Aiden, it’s Kara. When he meets her, he can see the multitude of dark marks on her soul, times in her past when she’s been used. She’s fierce and pretends that she can be on her own when she really aches for human companionship. Their curses, their pasts, and things they don’t understand seem to draw Aiden and Kara together. His overprotective streak extends to her even as he knows that it’s impossible to protect everyone. Rebecca also has had recent losses, but she is hardly developed at all. Aiden can’t seem to make up his mind if she needs protection or not, torn between her and his sister. Sid is a character who pulls everyone together by rescuing them from their dark places. He’s creepy, and whenever he does anything in the story I get the shudders. He claims to be doing everything for others but I questioned his motives the entire time I was reading, trusting Aiden’s judgement.
As an older sibling, Ava and Aiden’s relationship was very realistic. I wanted to shake Ava when she was doing stupid things. It was really exasperating, because Aiden is doing everything he can to protect her. She’s smart because she didn’t exactly have a glowing childhood, but she is still a younger sibling. She has to be annoying. At the same time, even as Aiden wants to protect her he also wants to live his own life. Watching how they worked and didn’t work together brought back memories of when my siblings and I were growing up.
The setting for Darkness Brutal was not a perfect fairy tale world. It may be fantasy, but it was full of drugs, darkness, and danger. (The alliteration got away from me. I couldn’t stop it.) I’m realizing more and more that I really like books that are labeled as urban fantasy. They’re really easy to get into because they’re a sort of alternate reality to our own world. At one time or another, most people have visited or lived in a city. It’s not that hard to make the jump from the picture of a normal, urban setting to that of an urban fantasy one. I loved it. Just gritty enough to not be too gritty, Aiden’s world pulled me in quickly. Demons and ghosts exist in the underbelly of Los Angeles, drawn to the lost souls that are doing all they can to survive. It’s not hard to believe that creepy demons are influencing the thoughts of people who are predisposed to doing horrible things. As Aiden knows, everyone has some strong emotion that demons like to lap up.
The romance in the story seemed unnecessary. I didn’t particularly like either of the girls, and the love triangle was weak and shouldn’t have even been included. Kara was an interesting character, but whenever she was thrown into a romantic situation I grew bored. It became less about her powers and who she was and more about her confused feelings. It was disappointing, because Kara had a pretty intense backstory that made me want to know more about her. I honestly wasn’t even sure if Aiden liked the two girls for who they were or because they served to further his character development. They existed at times to only be rescued, and much of his relationship with them revolved around him worrying about how he could save them.
There were some negative aspects of Darkness Brutal. Aspects that were very difficult to push past. I was not a fan of how sex was used to advance the story. It was the main reason why I wasn’t thrilled about the romance in Darkness Brutal. There wasn’t a moment when I felt it was real. A bigger issue I had was the casual handling of the threat of rape to the girls in the story in order to progress the male’s character. I get that they live in a city that is sometimes very dangerous. But the threat of rape wasn’t used for the girls to show how they could kick-ass; it was used to show how Aiden was good, because he was the rescuer. He always protected the damsels in distress. Whenever it came up, Aiden was the one who took offense and filled with rage. It didn’t focus on those who were actually being threatened. I get that it’s meant to show how horrible the bad people in the story are, but I got it the first time. It didn’t need to be continually used. Rape shouldn’t be used as a tool to advance the story.
The characters were very lively, the setting vivid, and the conflict and set up of the subsequent books interesting. I did enjoy this book but it seemed to go on forever. I was interested in the setting and Aiden’s identity, but it was a slow read at times. There were parts of the book that I wish had been edited out because they weren’t too important to the overall plot. It wasn’t a book I lost sleep over. I will keep an eye out for the next ones, but I may grab them from the library instead of purchasing them . Although Darkness Brutal is for a young adult market, it does have multiple mention of rape, attempted rape, and other serious issues that are very real and may be tough for some people to read about. Urban fantasy, although fantasy, still exists in the real world, and sometimes the real world is not the best place to be.
I received a read-to-review copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.