Review by Curtis Cole
Do you have a hankering for Young Adult (YA) Urban Fantasy novels? If so then good news! Rachel A. Marks has you covered with her first installment in the “Dark Cycle” trilogy. Featuring all of the hallmarks of YA literature (hormones, passion, intimacy, emotions, etc.) with a healthy dose of inspiration taken from the television show “Supernatural”, readers of such works will be delighted to partake in the latest addition to the ‘up and coming’ sub-genre of urban fantasy; with the author having previously won an award for her novella “Winter Rose”, one should consider it an added bonus that the name behind the pen is talented as she is dedicated.
So what is the plot of this YA release, you ask? One of very expected content: Meet Aiden, a seventeen year old boy. He has special powers, including, but not limited to: the ability to read (and speak) in numerous ancient languages, see and communicate with demons, fighting said demons, and see peoples’ emotions waft from their bodies as colorful hues. Aiden must protect his little sister (Ava) whose (mysterious) importance is so vital to demon-kind that they have hunted her ever since she was a little girl; they congregate every three (or so) years—on her birthday—to make an attempt on her soul. People tend to die when this transpires and so Aiden, diligent to prevent any more innocent people from being torn to shreds, becomes desperate to protect her from the darkness, to find a lasting cure for her “demon problem”. In a bid to stave off the monsters he brings Ava to the home of Sid, a magically inclined gentleman who deals in the supernatural for a living, alongside his crew of “uniquely talented” youngsters. Though protected under Sid’s roof by his array of enchantments, things quickly become complicated for Aiden once he meets Kara and Rebecca; from here on out his life becomes a swirl of raging hormones and arcane secrets from his past—his mother’s death at the hand of demons somehow one of the keys to saving the world.
It is all standard fare. It is equal parts Supernatural and Harry Potter mixed with a bit of H.P Lovecraft. To Marks’s credit, much of the writing is handled exquisitely. The characters, for the most part, feel authentic: there is drama and emotions preserved in narrative layers; just when you think things become settled, something new transpires to throw everything out of orbit. Though there are many different sub-plots nothing ever feels too “out of whack”. Although some of the narrative aspects could have been more fully realized (such as a character or two or a plot thread), Marks should be congratulated on managing the largely successful fusion of so many different elements in a whole. Many authors, especially new authors, make the mistake of balancing too many balls in the air and end up crashing to the ground: Marks meanwhile juggles with pride.
So with this being said, I wish my opinion of Darkness Brutal was better, but quite frankly, I cannot lie: I found this book to be trite to the core. Though it may simply be I am not the target audience, I feel this only mitigates a fraction of the damage—I have read other YA novels containing far more substance. To make a list of my complaints: (1) the protagonist was jarring, (2) the plot itself easily recycled material from a wide range of supernatural and fantasy canon, (3) the drama needless and eye-rolling, and (4) some of the preaching, moralizing, and how it combined with the plot twists were laughable. Though there are many positive components to this books, these listed aspects were inexcusable mistakes.
First and foremost, the protagonist: he was thoroughly unlikable. Numerous times while reading, I wish I could shake him and/or punch him—he was a clueless, melodramatic, male chauvinist hiding behind a “nice guy” persona. His ignorance became more glaring with each chapter; his refusal to confide in people, ask for help, divulge information—along with his general arrogance juxtaposed with his stereotypical ‘I can handle anything since it is my responsibility to protect my little sis,’ when he is clearly outmatched—made him a target with legs in my eyes. His attitude was irrational and highly irksome since it was lazy writing on the part of the author; indeed, with Aiden she dropped the ball: truly he is nothing more than a walking amalgamation of tropes and clichés of the worst kind.
Another factor which pushed my literary buttons was Aiden’s disposition towards sexual activities. While this complaint factors into the various drama sub-plots, I found it to be a weakness of the author, and so subsequently attached it to her conservative social position; although the protagonist is on the cusp on adulthood, and openly remarks about his desperation to “get laid” and lose his virginity, he never engages in sexual activities when an able, willing and age-appropriate partner presents a consenting possibility.
To be clear: I am not railing against the fact that there are no sex scenes. No matter the genre, I prefer my literature to be free of pornography, as I feel it distracts from the narrative. What I am frustrated with, rather, is Marks’s moralizing and poor character design. Simply said, this seems of an authorial imposition: though I do not wish to make blanket statements about young people, I feel that many youth in Aiden’s position would have partook in a chance at sexual intimacy instead of passing up the offer. The fact that he refuses encounters extended to him by a willing, similarly aged, consenting partner, which even leads him to the fulfillment of the narrative’s major sub-plot, is indicative of a reactionary theist-oriented stance on human relations; Marks is building a world where youth resist the temptation of “sex before marriage” and are rewarded by divine powers. A position collaborated when seen contrasted to depictions of those who indulge in premarital carnal relations (i.e., deformed, sinful and unwell life forms who bring hardship upon their loved ones). With procreation constituting the major theme of the book (hardly surprising since Mormon extremist Orson Scott Card gave the title a sterling endorsement), and Aiden’s redemption of “The Mother(s)” achieved precisely through such conservative means, the aroma of sex negative thinking pervades the text.
For a teen and young adult novel, Darkness Brutal was a jarring read thanks to the overwhelming emphasis which conservatism occupied. The majority of the book’s inter-character drama played out against sexual desire and its repression. While the author did try and elevate non-sexual activities (like kissing and hand-holding) to a higher level of importance, the net-product was more condescension than reality. I felt that the focus of the plot was being subsumed. In place of an active engagement of Aiden as a uniquely talented individual, the focus of the narrative centered more on carnal delights which were only present due to the gifts given once rejected; in short: Marks does not know how to write youthful heterosexual males, a visibility made even more acute with the frustratingly cardboard “emotional wreck” of a love interest (“Kara”). It was needless and hapless preaching on the part of Marks; a kind whose obsolesce appeared all the more antiquated due to its awkward visibility in a genre usually devoid of such backward positions (teen novels such as Raziel Reid’s When Everything Feels Like the Movies depict how much a teen novel can get away with in terms of sexual philosophy without losing sight of the characters as driven agents).
All of this said, Darkness Brutal is still a fine read. Assuming one does not mind a great deal of cursing (or angst filled characters), I would recommend this as a suitable read to a teen or young adult with a penchant for the supernatural and otherworldly. The writing is evocative and the author knows how to keep the plot going. While she does trip over herself on more than one occasion, I do not feel it severely impedes the narrative to an unreadable degree; though I should be honest and say that I think this book can only be recommended to persons still developing a taste in this kind of thematic material; anyone, after all, who has read and watched more than a handful of similarly constructed texts, will be sure to find this a drab read. So, at the end of the day, while this is bound to be an adequate birthday-party bash for any number of young readers, older lovers of ‘the dark’ should stay away—nothing but ‘kiddy’ parties here!
Rachel A. Marks
 Page estimates taken from Amazon.com.
 Prices were accurate at the time of writing.