REVIEW: Dark Lover by JR Ward
In Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters (bear with me, I’m going somewhere with this) the witches of Lancre bless the child Tomjon with three gifts: to make friends easily, to always remember the words, and to be who he thinks he is. I read Wyrd Sisters at a young age, and the witches’ gifts always stuck with me, ever since I’ve rather admired people and things that are what they think they are.
Dark Lover is what it thinks it is.
For those of you who don’t already know, Dark Lover is the first instalment in the Black Dagger Brotherhood series. The eponymous Black Dagger Brotherhood is basically a meze platter of hot dudes, each lovingly detailed with handy character traits for easy reference.
So there’s Wrath, the Blind King, the six-foot-six broad-shouldered massive-wanged leader of the Brotherhood. Then there is his second in command Tohrment, the level-headed one who is the only warrior amongst the Brothers to have found true happiness with his shellan. Following on from those we get Rhage, whose Hollywood-perfect good looks give way to a terrible beast when his curse is upon him. Vishous, the goateed, tattooed genius whose gloved left hand holds a terrible destructive power. Zsadist, the former blood-slave whose face is marred by scars and whose cold black eyes hold the promise of death. And Phury, who … has really good hair.
I could be wrong, but Dark Lover felt to me like it had a very clear sense of its target audience. It seems to have been aimed at people who like a particular set of things, and to have set out to serve those people by including as many of those things as humanly possible. This left me feeling a bit ambivalent about the book, because about half of the things which the book was throwing at me were things I really liked, and about half of them were things that made me want to facepalm so hard I gave myself a nosebleed.
Roughly speaking, I could sum up my reaction to the book as: Vampires, cool. Vampire society with extraordinarily rigid and painfully stereotypical gender roles, not cool.
I liked the setting, I liked the Black Dagger Brotherhood and the Lessening Society. I liked vampires-as-species rather than vampires-as-undead (I’ve seen this in a couple of paranormals actually, I suspect it’s a way of a avoiding the “fucking a corpse” problem you’re otherwise dealing with in vampire romance). I quite liked the mystical greebly stuff with the Brothers all having a Curse and this being a part of who they are. I was okay with the Scribe Virgin, although I wasn’t sure I could take the name seriously – it just felt too much like two nouns randomly jammed together, like she hangs out with the Taxidermist Misanthrope or the Barrister Masochist. Of course I suppose when the rest of your society are called things like Wrath, Rhage, Phury, Ahngry and Rheallyquhiteupsehtrightnow “Scribe Virgin” is actually fairly sensible.
I was less than wild about the way vampire “males” and “females” had their lives so utterly defined by their genders. Basically the Males Are The Warriors And Do The Protecting while the Females Are Protected And Provide Emotional Support. I do get that this kind of setup has an appeal for some people, and I’m really not judging, but I found it profoundly offputting. The whole thing just felt essentialist and unbalanced. For example, vampire males are allowed to have more than one shellan (vampire wife), but vampire females normally only have one hellren (vampire husband) despite the fact that female vampires fairly explicitly go into a mating frenzy every few years during which they need more lovin’ than any one male can reasonably provide.
I don’t think it helped that both Wrath and his first shellan Marissa are shown to be profoundly damaged by the gendered expectations of their society, but their society is not blamed for the damage. Wrath fails to protect his family from the lessers and feels he has failed as a male because Males Are For Doing Protecting. Marissa spends two centuries with Wrath treating her like shit, and feels she has failed as a female, because Females Must Support Their Males. Both characters are shown to be mistaken in their self-recrimination but not for reasons I’m comfortable with. Wrath is wrong to feel that his failure to protect his family makes him a Bad Male because his actions since have shown him to be a Good Male who is good at Fighting and Protecting. Marissa is wrong to feel that Wrath’s rejection of her makes her a Bad Female because her endless, selfless devotion to him actually made her a Good Female, and her status as a Good Female is ultimately reinforced at the end of the book when she finds somebody who appreciates what a Good Female she truly is (and also, arguably, when she allows Wrath to leave her to be with the heroine, because again making sacrifices for her Male seems to be what Good Females do in this setting). At no point is it suggested that Wrath or Marissa would have been better off if their society hadn’t made these unreasonable demands of them in the first place, they just mistakenly believe that they have failed in their duties, when really they have succeeded.
So, umm, anyway. Plot.
Dark Lover is the story of Wrath, who is King of the Vampires (although like movie!Aragorn and, I think every king I have ever seen as a viewpoint character in mainstream fiction, he believes himself unfit to lead) and Beth who is … umm … a human female. Okay, I’m being a little bit unfair here, Beth isn’t completely devoid of personality, and towards the end of the book she develops the pleasing habit of telling the hero where to stick his alpha bullshit, but the text is far, far less interested in her than it is in the Brotherhood. Wrath is asked by his Brother (that’s capital-B brother, so metaphorical warrior-brother not literal brother) Darius to protect his (Darius’) daughter. Wrath initially refuses, but then Darius is blown up by a car bomb (he clearly couldn’t have stayed in the Brotherhood for long anyway – I mean I know Darius is the name of a dead Persian emperor but compared to the rest of the Brotherhood he might as well have been called Dave).
So anyway, Darius’ daughter turns out to be Beth. Beth is super-awesome-mega-hot. The kind of hot that makes literally everybody she meets who isn’t a villain fall in an appropriate degree of love with her (this is at least an upgrade on the more common kind of super-awesome-mega-hot which just makes everybody want to rape you). Wrath breaks into Beth’s apartment, and she freaks out, so he erases her memory. The next evening he breaks into her apartment again, and they have sex despite only having said about seventeen words to each other. This happens in chapter eight. Chapter eight of fifty-five. It also begins what I like to think of as the Saga of Wrath’s Erection. At the start of chapter ten, we are given this description of Wrath’s naked body:
“His upper arms were the size of her thighs. His abdomen was ribbed as if he were smuggling paint rollers under his skin. His legs were thick and corded. And his sex was as big and magnificent as the rest of him.” (p. 92)
Now I don’t normally nitpick writing, particularly not at the sentence level, and I don’t actually think that there’s anything wrong with that description at all – it conveys Beth’s breathless wonder at the sight of Wrath’s naked (and, we later discover, hairless) body perfectly well. And I fully appreciate that, in context “as big and magnificent as the rest of him” reads most naturally as “big and magnificent in the same way that the rest of him was big and magnificent.” Unfortunately the line was just ambiguous enough that I spent the rest of the book stuck with the mental image of Wrath’s penis being literally the same size as the rest of his body.
It doesn’t help that Wrath’s erection is described in decidedly … umm … animated terms. It’s constantly straining for freedom, or being sprung from his flies, or pulsing with a heartbeat of its own. Even when quiescent, it casts a remarkable shadow over the narrative. Early on Beth feels it like a thick rope against her belly, and towards the end of their relationship Marissa is first excited and terrified by Wrath’s erection, and then crushed to realise that:
“That erection wasn’t because of her. Wasn’t for her.” (p. 187)
By the end of the book, Wrath’s erection was coming perilously close to being my favourite character. It could almost have been a member of the Brotherhood in its own right. Although I suppose it would have had to call itself “Ehrection” or something. Although thinking about it, it could have got away with “Phallus”.
Anyway, the rest of the plot concerns the efforts of “Mr X” the Fore-lesser of the Lessening Society to wipe out the Black Dagger Brotherhood by … umm … murdering prostitutes. In theory the plan is to use the delicious hooker-blood to lure out “civilian” vampires so that he can torture them for information about the Brotherhood but holy shitmonkeys does that sound like a terrible plan. I mean surely that’s like trying to get hold of military secrets by just randomly abducting people off the streets, your chances of grabbing somebody who actually knows anything are basically zero. I mean, I suppose vampire society is smaller and more close-knit, but the Brotherhood really don’t seem to hang out with anybody outside the Brotherhood. A major substrand of Mr X’s plan is to build up his ranks by recruiting more lessers. He manages to recruit exactly one, a boy named Billy Riddle who just happens to have tried to rape Beth at the start of the book.
I’m torn on this. On the one hand, I was quite pleased that the book made it very clear that Billy Riddle had tried to rape the heroine because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he was a horrible little shitbag who liked to rape people, rather than because she was Just That Beautiful. On the other hand I’m not wild about rape-as-plot-device, and I was particularly bothered about how much manly manly man-bonding Wrath did with maverick-cop-on-the-edge Butch O’Neil over their shared desire to inflict physical harm on the guy. Perhaps I’m just being overly touchy, but if somebody tries to rape your heroine, I don’t think the primary narrative function of that event should be to provide the basis for a good bromance. Having said all that, I thought Beth’s reaction in the immediate aftermath of the attack was fairly well handled (although I should stress that I am in no position whatsoever to be making judgements about that sort of thing). She’s shaken but not incapacitated, she feels she should go to the police, but doesn’t want to, and feels ashamed of not wanting to. It all felt interestingly shitty and low-key.
Anyway, Mr X inducts Billy into the Lessening Society. They try to kill Wrath. They fail. Beth is pretty cool in the final confrontation, actually getting to kind of sort of be a part of the fighting a little bit (although her role is mostly “essential last-second distraction” it’s still a step up from “victim”). Overall I found the whole ending a little bit anticlimactic – Mr X has been talking a really big game ever since chapter seven, and so I’d really hoped his plan would have a bit more to it than “and then me and this one guy who has no training whatsoever will kill the extraordinarily powerful vampire king who, by the way, I have only just found out really exists so I have absolutely no way of knowing what his capabilities are (by the way I am extremely meticulous in my work)”. I got kind of the feeling it was setting up for a bigger confrontation later on, but Mr X wound up looking kind of nonthreatening. I think that a big part of the problem was that the Brothers are clearly, individually, far more powerful than the lessers, but that the lessers don’t seems to like working in groups. Even Mr X, who is trying to reorganise the Lessening Society into something more military, seems at pains to avoid sharing his plans with his fellows, which means that in the final confrontation Wrath is only outnumbered two to one, odds which have never presented any members of the Brotherhood with anything resembling a challenge.
All in all I didn’t dislike Dark Lover. A lot of the time I could see why it was doing what it was doing, and why people whose preferences are different to mine might be into what it was doing. And I do have a sort of vague, intellectual interest in seeing what the other brothers’ books look like, but I never quite got that popcorny must-keep-going feeling that I understand a lot of other people have had.
Everything I learned about life and love from reading Dark Lover: Vampire hunters smell of baby powder. Vampire kings have no pubic hair. If your species is in trouble, breed a master race of hot warrior dudes. The only thing stronger than true love is an epic bromance.