Becoming Darkness: Plenty of thrills with nary a sparkle in sight

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsBecoming Darkness by Lindsay Francis Brambles horror book reviewsBecoming Darkness by Lindsay Francis Brambles

Becoming Darkness is the first of the HAVEN trilogy by debut author Lindsay Francis Brambles, a YA horror series which asks “What if the Nazis won WWII?” with the added twist of a global vampirism plague. It’s mostly quite good, with allusions to literary predecessors like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and layers of complicity in nearly a century’s-worth of conspiracies. The overall concept is interesting and the narrative flows well, and many of the characters are engaging.

In this universe, Hitler and his Nazi scientists experimented with biological warfare, eventually unleashing a plague — the Gomorrah virus — which destroyed an already flu-ravaged global population. Most of those who didn’t die outright became vampires, requiring blood for sustenance and gaining immortality. The humans who didn’t succumb at all were rounded up into concentration camps before being relocated to their new home, Haven: an archipelago of three islands at the equatorial line in the Pacific Ocean. Immune blood is lethal to vampires, but as part of a peace treaty with the Third Reich, they’re allowed to live in this remote location. Far from a carefree island paradise, Haven has strict rationing of food and electricity, a forced marriage/breeding program in order to maintain and increase the Immune population, and everyone lives under the watchful eye of the Third Reich Embassy in the capital city of Caelo.

Seventeen-year-old Sophie Harkness’ relatively happy life is completely turned upside-down after the mysterious and brutal murder of her best friend, Camille Westerly. Sophie’s mother died in childbirth and her father, Jonathan, was recently committed to an insane asylum after forcible retirement from the Presidential Security Service. Her boyfriend, Valentine, is the Third Reich’s ambassador to Haven; they met four years before the events of the novel, while her father was investigating a murder which occurred on the Embassy grounds. After Camille’s murder, Sophie discovers a trail of secrets which reveal the awful truths of her formerly peaceful existence, and must ask herself whether uneasy peace is worth the cost of one’s very humanity.

Sophie herself is generally well-written; she’s intelligent, curious, and determined to discover the truth even if it kills her. She’s loyal to her friends Izzy and Ticket, and her relationships with them feel natural and enrich the story immeasurably. I liked her the most when she wasn’t mooning or crying over her boyfriend, who is manipulative and creepy. Valentine may look eighteen years old, but has been alive for roughly eighty years, which immediately soured me on any romance and sexual activity between the two of them. Even more upsetting were his personal involvement with her family (going back generations) and his insistence that he and Sophie were destined to be together. At no point did I feel like this was an equal partnership, despite the rose-colored way it was presented from Sophie’s point of view; all I could see was an octogenarian preying on a teenaged girl. When Sophie’s friends and family find out about her clandestine love affair, they only object to the fact that he’s a vampire working for the Nazis. No one brings up the age discrepancy in a serious tone, leading me to believe that the reader is supposed to root for Sophie and trust that Val’s intentions are honorable. Too often, the romance came across as a deliberate attempt to cater to a female YA audience rather than a natural driving force of the characters or plot. If Brambles intended for Val to be anything but a laudable figure, I wish that had been emphasized more clearly in the text.

I also wish the romance angle had been downplayed in general, because the rest of Becoming Darkness is both thrilling and interesting. The vampires are frightening predators who are vulnerable to sunlight and crucifixes. Nazi-occupied New York City still bears the scars of the V-3 rockets Hitler used to pound the United States into submission, and black-coated Gestapo walk the streets with wolves on leashes. There are frequent mentions of a popular alternate-history novel, No Haven for Darkness, which describes a world in which the Nazis surrendered and the 21st-century is overtaken by laughable concepts like “social media” and “texting.” Life on Haven is thoroughly described, with small touches like bulky televisions which only have black-and-white displays or the class differences between people who can afford electric cars and those who can afford to import combustion-engine automobiles from Germany. Brambles unfolds the conspiracy slowly, teasing out details and occasional red herrings to draw the reader into the narrative.

Brambles also includes nods to Dracula, a novel that does exist in Sophie’s world, which largely enrich the text. Names like Westerly and Harkness evoke Lucy Westnra and Jonathan Harker; Sophie’s father’s madness is less temporary than that of Jonathan Harker’s, though no less affecting; there are mysterious murders and a calculating, evil old creature which only plays at being a man. (My only complaint was when a character used “Mina Harker” as an alias: if Dracula exists and is still a popular novel in Haven, that’s a terrible way to disguise one’s identity.) Unfortunately, a few shades of TWILIGHT also haunt Becoming Darkness: the aforementioned “love” between Val and Sophie, the notion that Immunes have an odor to all vampires (and Sophie’s is intoxicating to Val), and the vampires’ reliance on animal blood to survive all stuck out in my mind as associations with that other popular YA vampire series.

The negative aspects of the novel were made up for by Sophie’s discoveries and the expansion of the world around her, even as she must draw herself inward and protect the people she cares for. The action scenes, particularly a high-speed train ride, were compelling and very well conveyed. I’m willing to chalk up some questionable choices on Brambles’ part to inexperience, and I’m interested to see where the HAVEN trilogy will go and how certain mysteries will be resolved. I would recommend Becoming Darkness for older teenagers, due to the vague references to sexual acts, and there are some mentions of gore and torture.

Publication date: October 1, 2015. Young adult. Like everyone else living in Haven, seventeen-year-old Sophie Harkness is an Immune – a carrier of the genetic mutation that protects her from the virus Hitler unleashed upon the world more than half a century ago. A virus that wiped out most of humanity and turned two-hundred million people into vamps. But after her best friend is brutally murdered and several attempts are made on her own life, Sophie becomes determined to find answers to what seems to be a conspiracy running generations deep. And when she questions the peace treaty that keeps her small community protected, Sophie begins to discover terrible truths about herself and what it means to be human in a world ruled by darkness.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but now makes her home in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, and Seanan McGuire.

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  1. Hi, Jana,

    I’d like to start by thanking you for taking the time to read and review my book. I am disappointed that BECOMING DARKNESS wasn’t able to completely satisfy you, but I’m realistic enough to realize that what makes this world of ours so interesting is that we all have varying tastes.

    With regard to the romance in the book, this was something I debated considerably. It was never my intention to mimic TWILIGHT or TRUE BLOOD (or a myriad of other vampire works), and initially the relationship between Val and Sophie was one of friendship. But most betareaders of the earlier draft wanted a more intense relationship, which they felt was necessary in order to justify some of the decisions and actions taken on the part of the main character and to propel the story onward.

    I always intended that readers be somewhat unsettled by the relationship between Sophie and Val, and I think I’m probably one of the few authors who has featured such a relationship between a young woman and a vampire (of chronologically older vintage)and addressed the disparity in age. This was never the case in TWILIGHT (where Edward is about a century older than Bella) or in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (where Angel is a couple of centuries older than Buffy) or in TRUE BLOOD (where Sookie is about a hundred and fifty years younger than Bill). There are countless other instances, but I don’t think it necessary to list them all to make the point of how what we would consider rather appalling (and probably disgusting) in the real world is largely ignored in vampire fiction. I actually chose not to completely ignore it — although ultimately I wanted to leave it largely to readers as to how they regarded it.

    Val’s previous connections with Sophie’s family were, again, meant to put something of an emphasis on his age (and to shock the reader as much as they did Sophie). But those connections are also related to a larger story arc that won’t see it’s resolution until the third (concluding) novel. In that final book the reason for Val’s insistence that he and Sophie are “destined” for one another will be revealed to have its roots in an encounter Val alludes to toward the end of BECOMING DARKNESS.

    The difficulty with writing the first novel of a proposed trilogy is that you want to make the book as self-contained as possible while at the same time planting the seeds for (possible)sequels. Without the latter, the reader may later feel cheated later on by events that crop up in succeeding books that are related to the preceding one.

    I’ve written a sequel to BECOMING DARKNESS (and you’ll be pleased to know that there’s much less of a romantic angle in it). About two thirds of a final novel are complete, and this book will bring the story full circle.

    Anyway, thank you again for the review; I truly appreciate the time and effort you have taken with it. I realize it’s not considered politic for writers to respond to reviews, but I thought these words might enlighten readers somewhat — as well as shed some light on how difficult it can be for a writer to deal with thorny subjects.

    With sincerest and warmest regards,

    Lindsay Brambles

    • Mr. Brambles,

      I appreciate your thorough response, as it will certainly be helpful to readers who are unfamiliar with your novel or the extensive work you’ve put into your website, where the depth of supplementary material is remarkable and very enlightening.

      I always enjoy learning from authors about their writing process and the various creative challenges they face, and I have sent interview questions to the appropriate publicist at Switch Press to be passed along to you. I understand that authors are hard-pressed for free time, particularly after a book has just been published, but I hope you’ll be able to look them over. I would welcome the chance to discuss these issues, and others, in greater detail.

      I look forward to reading the continuation of Sophie’s story and, schedule permitting, your answers to my questions.

      Thank you,
      Jana Nyman

  2. Jana; great review, and what an intriguing world! I thought I was done with vampires, or at least on hiatus, but maybe I’ll make an exception for this one.

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