024 – A Brush of Darkness by Allison Pang

A Brush of Darkness cover Six months ago, Abby Sinclair was struggling to pick up the pieces of her shattered life. Now, she has an enchanted iPod, a miniature unicorn living in her underwear drawer, and a magical marketplace to manage. But despite her growing knowledge of the OtherWorld, Abby isn’t at all prepared for Brystion, the dark, mysterious, and sexy-as-sin incubus searching for his sister, convinced Abby has the key to the succubus’s whereabouts. Abby has enough problems without having this seductive shape-shifter literally invade her dreams to get information. But when her Faery boss and some of her friends vanish, as well, Abby and Brystion must form an uneasy alliance. As she is sucked deeper and deeper into this perilous world of faeries, angels, and daemons, Abby realizes her life is in as much danger as her heart—and there’s no one she can trust to save her.
God, you guys know I hate to gush, right? It’s not my thing. I nit-pick, get annoyed, and say “meh” a lot. It’s been a while since I’ve come across something original, several books since I met a heroine I both liked and could relate to, and even longer since I’ve run into a book that was genuinely funny to me. Guess what? FOUND THEM ALL. IN ONE BOOK.

Yeah, I’m kind of psyched about A Brush of Darkness. I was sucked in from the very beginning, first by the heroine, and then by the world, so much so that I didn’t even really care that the book was much longer than it needed to be, and that a lot of the plot – and a specific, key element of it, no less – was absolutely unnecessary. Seriously, do you guys know how much I’d have to like this book to overlook stuff like that? LOTS AND LOTS.

Let’s start with the world, shall we? Brush of Darkness is set in, yes, a Fantasy Kitchen Sink world, but you know what? I don’t mind this time because the general principle behind it is so cool. There are three paths from which supernatural creatures in this world come: the Light, Dark, and Middle path, or, Heaven, Hell, and Faeryland, respectively. However, like any good fantasy world, these are just homelands, and not indicators of moral integrity. Dark creatures – at least not the ones we meet in this book – don’t seem to be inherently bad, and, as Abby so eloquently puts it: “just about every angel I’d ever met near had a stick up his ass.”

The catch, however, is that none of these creatures – Dark, Light, or Fae – can stay long in the human world without having a TouchStone. TouchStones are humans that act as a sort of anchor for the OtherFolk, allowing them to come and go as they please. To become a TouchStone, the human and faery/demon/angel/whathaveyou, must form a Contract that benefits both parties. For example, Abby’s contract is for a duration of seven years, during which she will not age, and a free wish to be granted at the end of it. In exchange, she must bear the burden of being a TouchStone (which can be physically draining) and also act as an assistant of sorts for her faery contractor.

Of course, the OtherFolk could totally fuck humans over with their Contracts if they wanted to, which is why there is a Faery Protectorate who watches over the dealings between the creatures of the Paths and the humans, making sure no one gets screwed.

Seriously, is that not like the coolest concept ever? This is one of those worlds with which I am both delighted and annoyed, because I want to come up with something that cool. It gets better, though, because it’s made clear you can get some pretty spiffy shit out of this TouchStone-ing deal. For example, Abby’s good friend Melanie is a fiddler who won a bet (or something; she refuses to talk about the exact circumstances) that left her with a magic fiddle that allows her to open doors to the CrossRoads with music (the CrossRoads being a sort of dimensional highway between worlds). Similarly, the very first human to ever document a contract between a human and faery ended up with the gift of Prophecy. Abby herself got an enchanted iPod out of the deal.

But it’s not all rainbows and sunshine – it’s implied that even with the Fae watching over things, you can end up with serious cases of “be careful what you wish for”.

So yeah, in short, I love these kinds of deal-with-the-devil situations, and I can’t wait to see what Pang does with it as the series progresses.

Then there’s Abby, the second-best thing about Brush of Darkness. She’s smart, tough, funny, damaged, and, as you can tell by the cover, has awesome hair. Yes, she ticks all the boxes of your average urban fantasy heroine – sarcastic, stubborn, pretty-but-not-fabulously, with an attitude, an endearing defect (she can’t cook worth shit), and special, super-rare abilities – but she benefits from some emotional depth and an interesting back story. I liked the fact that she was broken (both physically and emotionally) and lost when she formed her first TouchStone bond, that it was a bad decision that lead her into this world, not *~destiny~* (yet) or *~love~*. I liked that her resolve wavers, that as the story progresses and she gets deeper and deeper into the affairs of the OtherFolk, she wonders if it really is the life for her.

And yes, I like that she’s somewhat disabled. Abby’s left with seizures, a metal plate in her head, a nasty scar where they put it in, and a permanently weakened leg after surviving the car accident that killed her mother. It’s so out of the ordinary to come across a heroine in this genre who isn’t in peak physical condition, and this was a nice change. That and the avoidance she shows in confronting her mother’s death made her feel more like a real person to me.

Granted, she is both a Dreamer – someone with the ability to sort of…bend reality in the CrossRoads, and an infinitely more rare KeyStone, or someone who can TouchStone for multiple supernatural creatures at once, and those abilities do take her a ways out of the realm of “normal girl” and into ~*speshul snowflake~* territory. I ACKNOWLEDGE THIS. Also, I suspect that her absent father will turn into some sort of big reveal, making her half-royal-fae or something, but eh. Both have the potential to turn into eye-rolling cliche, but we’ll have to see where it goes.

Seriously though, between her special powers and her role as TouchStone to the Protectorate, this series could really go anywhere, and I’m very keen to follow it.

The number one thing I love, though, about this book as a whole, was its sense of humor. Far too often the banter and one-liners that sarcastic heroines spout out are lame or only mildly amusing, and I rarely find myself literally laughing out loud at a book. Not so here. Abby’s voice was wonderfully bitchy, and the majority of her narration was snark-filled and cutting. Not only that, but the subversive way Pang tackles certain genre cliches was priceless. Abby strays into some flowery descriptive language in the midst of her sex scene, she immediately calls herself out on it. She accidentally becomes the caretaker of a miniature unicorn that threatens to bring out all her childish fantasies, he turns out to be a crass, leg-humping, ass-biting, beer-drinking pervert tired of all that virgin and purity crap.

My favorite moment, though, had to be the one between Abby and her demon captor as he attempted to prevent her from escaping in the middle of a life-or-death battle:

Lok’tar ogar!” The daemon holding me pulled my head back, exposing my throat.

“Victory or death,” I retorted at my captor hoarsely. “For the Horde. And for the record, shouting World of Warcraft battle cries kind of kills the whole ‘imminent death’ expectation.”

The daemon paused. “What server are you on?” he demanded.

“Blackhand.”

“Righteous. Guild?”

“Yeah,” I coughed. “ElfHunter Bitches.”

“No shit. I’m TartBarbie, Undead Death Knight.”

“TB? Seriously? I’m Baconator. Blef Warlock. You did a hell of a job tanking on that raid the other night.”

“Yeah, I am pretty awesome.
…then he lets her go, because he can’t bring himself to kill a Guildie. Priceless. I don’t even care that the odds are astronomical, it just makes it that much funnier.

Seriously, the quickest way to win me over is with good humor, and this book had that in spades.

The relationship between Abby and her incubus suitor, Brystion, was pretty decent as well. Far from being the blushing virgin, Abby is up front about her physical attraction to Brystion from the start, and he returns the favor. They don’t immediately hop into bed though, and when they finally do, they actually avoid the instant love trap. Their initial relationship is based purely on the present, the sex, and enjoying each other without any regrets. In roughly the middle of the novel, Abby herself says straight-up that what she feels for Brystion isn’t quite love, because they’ve only known each other a few days. HOLY SHIT FINALLY SOMEONE WHO REALIZES THAT REAL LOVE TAKES TIME AND GETTING TO KNOW ONE ANOTHER.

While I wasn’t head-over-heels for Brystion as a character, I didn’t necessarily find him bland or repulsive, either. He might have started out as your traditional reluctant anti-hero in a Badass Longcoat (which Abby at least has the presence of mind to comment on), but his character gets some pretty good development as well. Rather than existing solely as an excuse for sex, we actually get a glimpse at the baggage an incubus might carry, as someone…kind of doomed, actually, to live only to seduce. Also where that might cause trouble in a relationship. These are things most other romance novels tend to gloss over.

As an added bonus, while there were an abundance of side characters, they were each distinct, and for the most part, likable. It’s another one where I really felt the side characters were people, too, who also led live outside of the heroine’s field of view. Quite a few of them actually have spin-off story potential, but personally I’m most eager to learn more about Melanie.

There are drawbacks, though. And yes, the plot is one of them. While it starts of fairly basically – Abby’s mentor Moira may be missing, which sucks because Brystion needs her help finding several succubus, including his sister, who are definitely missing – it ends up being criminally predictable, and the focus frequently wanders off to explore other things. There’s a sub-plot involving a teenage girl that Abby sort of mentors in the world of TouchStone-ing, and a lot of time is spent on Abby’s day-to-day routine as the Protectorate’s TouchStone, her budding relationship with Brystion, her newfound abilities, the backstory behind her injuries, and vague references to her own introduction to the OtherFolk.

The two initial disappearances do eventually tie together, and the way in which our heroes link them introduces yet another aspect of the same dastardly plan, which is almost completely unnecessary. The kidnappings and attacks that are perpetrated in order to fulfill it are unnecessary. There are a number of reasons I suspect it was included – it’s a cool concept, the heroine needed a way to face her inner demons, the villain needed a reason to keep attacking the main characters, etc, etc – but that doesn’t prevent it from feeling very extraneous. By the time the book was over, I had to go back and re-read the villain’s explanation of the Master Plan to actually get it, and yeah, his justification for said crime was essentially “because we did, so there.”

There’s actually another scene just before the final battle in which the characters all come together to construct a time line to reason out for themselves how all the different crimes are connected, which ends up being a much-needed refresher course for the reader as well. It should go without saying that when you need to insert a “Previously on A Brush of Darkness” scene in the middle of your book, your plot may have clarity issues.

Also, I’ve gotta say, A Brush of Darkness read like a sequel. We’re introduced to Abby six months after she’s learned about the world of the faery, and while some things are eventually explained to us through flashbacks, others – like the details of Abby’s dealings with her first Contractor and exactly how she came to be Moira’s TouchStone – are left vague. I couldn’t find another book published by Allison Pang at all, but I wonder if perhaps there was a short story I missed out on somewhere?

I’ll also admit that, as much as I liked Abby initially, her increasingly love-struck relationship with Brystion began to bother me. Don’t get me wrong, the sex scenes were pretty good, but her soppyness for the last quarter or so was…trying. They get to that phase where they’re all “is that all I am to you?”, and start wondering if they really should be that into each other, yadda yadda. Then we go straight into a state of betrayal, and it doesn’t seem like Abby stops moping over Brystion after that. C’mon woman! I know he betrayed you, but how about some righteous anger? Where’s your snark? Why are you so worried for him, or, hello, worried at all that you hurt him, when you clearly DIDN’T DO IT INTENTIONALLY, and even if you did, doesn’t he kind of deserve it at this point?

Brystion was a total dick during his final rescue, too. I don’t think I would have forgiven him, and I actually really wish Abby had done what she’d said and waited for him to come and apologize to her rather than going after him. He was in the wrong there, and though he did end up beating himself up for it a bit, I still think she let him off the hook too easy.

That being said, I actually found the ultimate ending a little off-putting. It seemed so strange for them to make such a leap in their relationship – and actually come to something of an understanding – only for Brystion to suddenly back out of it “for her own good.” It’s like, well fuck dude, like ten seconds ago you were all for this, what’s with the sudden change? And this is coming from someone who would normally appreciate this sort of bittersweet ending. But here, it felt…really out of place.

I did appreciate the growth Abby had as a character, though.

Plot issues aside, I found the writing quite good for the most part. The only thing I noticed that nagged was that Pang tended to use the same descriptions over and over, like describing Phineas’s mane as dandelion/cirrus fluff multiple times, stuff like that. Otherwise, no real complaints in that department, which, again, is a mountain of nice.

All in all, I gotta say this is one of the first books I’ve read in a long time that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed. Yes, there are issues, but the originality and the characters and the humor make up for it by miles. This is one I can enthusiastically give:

four stars

Oh, and we did get this one as a free e-galley from Simon and Schuster. WIN~!

 

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