A Neon Darkness by Lauren Shippen

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A Neon Darkness (The Bright Session #2)

by Lauren Shippen

eARC, 256 pages

Published September 29th 2020 by Tor Teen

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The second Bright Sessions novel from creator Lauren Shippen that asks: “What if the X-Men, instead of becoming superheroes, decided to spend some time in therapy?”

Los Angeles, 2006. Eighteen-year-old Robert Gorham arrives in L.A. amid the desert heat and the soft buzz of neon. He came alone with one goal: he wants to see the ocean. And Robert always gets what he wants.

At a very young age, Robert discovered he had the unusual ability to make those close to him want whatever he wants. He wanted dessert instead of dinner? His mother served it. He wanted his Frisbee back? His father walked off the roof to bring it to him faster. He wanted to be alone? They both disappeared. Forever.

But things will be different in L.A. He meets a group of strange friends who could help him. Friends who can do things like produce flames without flint, conduct electricity with their hands, and see visions of the past. They call themselves Unusuals and finally, finally, Robert belongs.

When a tall figure, immune to their powers, discovers them, the first family that Robert has ever wanted is at risk of being destroyed. The only way to keep them
all together is to get his powers under control.

But control is a sacrifice he might not be willing to make.

A Neon Darkness is the origin story of Damien and the second stand-alone story in the Bright Sessions Novels.

I received an eARC from publishers through Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion in anyway.

Trigger warning: abandonment, electrocution, non-consensual kissing, non-consensual drinking

Representation: Black (Neon), LGBTQ+ (Neon, Indah, Marley), Indonesian (Indah), Muslim (Indah)

I haven’t finished The Bright Sessions podcast yet, but I do know that as much Damien creeping me out with his sleazy vibe, I am also intrigued with his backstory. His power is arguably the most powerful out of the atypicals, as he could manipulate anyone to do his want.

I enjoyed A Neon Darkness better than the first book as it tells a new story rather than expanding more on what was happening in the podcast. It sets in 2006-2007 Los Angeles, telling the story of how young Robert found another atypicals, became Damien, and how the relationship morphed into something terrifying.

The writing is very easy to read and to build connection with the characters. There’s not much happening in the first half of the story, more on getting to know the other atypicals and exploring their dynamics, but since I’m a sucker for the “found family” trope this pacing works for me. The late 00’s setting is also really nostalgic, especially reading about beaches and parties and crowd in this modern era of social distancing and staying at home.

A lot of people mentioned that this book is hard to get through because Damien is such an unlikeable character. For me, I don’t find him likeable or unlikeable, the strongest emotion I can associate with him is pity. Everyone wants to be liked and loved, but for him, there will always a constant doubt on whether people genuinely cared for him or because he wanted them to feel it. For every relationships he build, questions about which things are done on their own free will or because he made them do it will be a constant presence. For all the power he has, he could not have the thing he wanted the most, which are love and family. He knows that people will always have these questions and at some point will probably leave him, so he does his best by using his powers to control them and eventually have it backfire on him.

The way his ability works also mean that he’s a man-child. He has been alone for so long, flying under the radar and leaving no trace that he doesn’t know how to form a relationship with anyone. He can get whatever he wants and has no one who were able to tell him no and while I agree that it should not fall on anyone to make him a better person, the lack of companionship and imbalanced power dynamics mean that he has been living far too long without consequences. When he met the Unsuals, as much as he wanted a family, he uses his ability to deflect and run from the things he doesn’t want to faced. It’s really sad to see him running and hiding, trying to be a better person only to have his fears of being alone, being abandoned, overriding his want to be better.

In LA, Damien met another Unusuals and formed a ragtag family: Neon, Indah, Marley, and eventually Blaze. I found each of their ability are very interesting, Neon and Blaze might be more typical but I love the subtlety of Marley’s power. Meanwhile, Indah is not an Unsual per se but has a unique ability that made her part of the group. I enjoyed reading all of the characters equally but I will always feel a certain of kinship with Indah, who’s Indonesian. When I first saw her name I immediately recognized it, but I didn’t really expected that she would actually be Indonesian. Reading her saying that she’s Indonesian and seeing her full name on the page were really exciting. I can’t believe that after all these years I got to see an Indonesian representation!!!

This group also met with an unknown threat dubbed as The Tall Man, which kidnapped Blaze and has been on their tail since. At this point we don’t know whether he’s part of the A.M, but the way he chase after them, look for information, and presence, they have good reasons to be terrified of him.

Since I haven’t finished the podcast yet, I don’t know whether Damien redeemed himself as the series goes. But I do know that A Neon Darkness offers an interesting insight to his past and what makes him… Damien. While it doesn’t make him redeemable nor excuses the things he did, this book gives me an understanding to his character. Together with the interesting cast of characters, found family trope, and exciting powers, A Neon Darkness is a very quick and enjoyable read 🤩


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