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.