A Neon Darkness by Lauren Shippen
A Neon Darkness (2020), the second book in Lauren Shippen‘s THE BRIGHT SESSIONS trilogy, is only very tangentially related to the first book, The Infinite Noise. It centers on a group of atypicals (the in-world word for people with powers) a full decade before the first book occurs.
Robert Gorham is 18-going-on-19 when he arrives in L.A. for reasons unclear to the reader until much later. His power makes him able to effortlessly manipulate people into doing what he wants, and he’s used that power liberally to get where he is. When he falls in with a group of other atypicals, he starts to have to take a long hard look at the morality of his choices.
A Neon Darkness is a villain origin story, which could have been an interesting tactic following the sugary sweet tone of the first book. It does lean into the tonal whiplash of its premise, but not to the strength of the narrative.
In what I’ll generously call a bold choice, A Neon Darkness does not have a story arc. What I mean is that, while there is some tension built towards a climax, there is really no rising or falling action. If you look at it from a plot perspective, the status quo is maintained and then the novel ends. Bafflingly, nearly nothing happens; it is, at best, a character study.
I’ve spent a lot of time here on Fantasy Literature and elsewhere talking about how I am a character-driven reader first, everything else second. So maybe, maybe this kind of plot-lite book that centres on one guy’s decent into villainy would work for me. And maybe it would, but not this time. The main character is almost interesting. He gets so, so close but ultimately the author just completely fumbled the landing for me.
I found the central idea of A Neon Darkness intriguing. Everything else about it is lackluster.