Monday, October 24, 2011

A Brush of Darkness (Off-Topic Review)

Series: Abby Sinclair (#1)
Genre: Romance/Adventure
Author: Allison Pang
Publisher: Pocket Books

There are two things that convinced me to go off-topic to read this book: Cyna's uncharacteristically gushy review, and a quote from the author's website: "I had a naked incubus in my bedroom. With a frying pan of half-cooked bacon and a hard-on. And a unicorn bite on his ass. Christ, this was turning out to be a weird morning." So when I sat down with A Brush of Darkness, I was expecting some kind of urban-fantasy version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Well... no. Not that the book I got is bad, but if you've seen this book hyped as a comedy, the hype man has it wrong. It's a far more complex book than that.

In the world of A Brush of Darkness, the human realm is one of several dimensions home to magical beings. However, most of these beings can't stay in the human realm for long. To do this they need a TouchStone, a human companion who agrees to anchor them in exchange for certain benefits. Our heroine Abby Sinclair is TouchStone to Moira, the Fairy Protectorate, an authority figure who commands much respect in the supernatural community. Recently, however, the Protectorate left town without leaving much info about where she was going. Abby is just starting to get worried about that when Brystion, an incubus, swaggers into her store asking to speak with Moira. Somewhat against her better judgement, Abby gets roped into Brystion's investigation of his sister's disappearance. If you're guessing the two vanishings are connected, you're not wrong.

While I won't be gushing over this book as much as Cyna did, I did enjoy it. The world-building is interesting, and the characterizations are second-to-none. Abby is one of the more complex heroines out there, balancing snark with very real traumas regarding the car crash that ended her dreams and killed her mother. If that seems like a cliche, it's not, because Pang does more than just give lip service to the "broken woman" trope. The effects of Abby's injuries are very real, and her coping mechanisms -- including refusing to take seizure meds out of denial and the cavalier bitchiness with which she confronts all her problems -- are a significant part of her character. I admire an author who is willing to put their characters through hell, rather than having them shrug off horrifying incidents with a dark one-liner and a brooding shrug.

For his part, Brystion is a solid love interest. He cares for Abby, but there's evidence that he's working his magic on her manipulatively. It's actually very, very subtle. Read the book and watch how Abby's tone shifts from general snarky disdain for everything to snarky disdain plus raging libido whenever her thoughts turn to Brystion. And take note that it happens without Abby noticing it. Well done, Ms. Pang, well done indeed. Brystion is also motivated by more basic desires like staying alive and finding his sister, and conflicting emotions are a factor in quite a few places. The most interesting twist on his relationship with Abby is that both of them acknowledge they're not in love. Not yet, anyway. It's a relationship of convenience and easy, hot-as-hell sex, with potential to grow into something deeper. Very well done, and a touch of realism that a lot of books could use.

All of this is elevated by a supporting cast which is quirky and vibrant, adding both depth and humor to the world, and a compelling writing style which brings out the appeal in both the magic and the mundanity of the setting. While it's not a great read from start to finish, the ingredients in this meal are flawless, and it was very enjoyable to wander through this world meeting new and interesting people.

But, and this is a big But, the plot is really, really rough. For starters, this is one of those detective stories where the heroes don't investigate so much as muck around until things fall into place. Admittedly, it's somewhat more justified here than in most cases. The villains start moving openly pretty early on, so the question becomes less "how do we solve this mystery?" and more "how do we stay alive long enough to solve this mystery"? Pang skirts the issue by shifting focus to Abby and Brystion, which works because both characters are well developed and fleshed out. But there are still problems. Setups are good, but payoffs tend to fizzle. The secrets of Moira's note, the key in Mel's painting, and the fourth path, are all set up as major twists early on, but the eventual reveals carry no energy. A plot twist should ideally make the reader go "Wow!" Here it was more like "Oh. Huh." (That fourth path business was really obvious, too.)

There are also subplots that go nowhere: most egregiously, the business with Katy near the beginning exists purely so that Abby can have a Spear Carrier to babble some world-building to. And there's a character called the PETA Pixie who has no visible reason for being in the story other than that Pang thought it was a funny idea. And on the subject, while Pang does a pretty good job of balancing funny, angsty, and romantic/sexy, you kinda wish she could have brought this all together into a consistent tone.

I don't want to be too negative, because Brush of Darkness is a good book and I enjoyed it. It rises above lesser books with similar plots through the author's skill. And if it's also held back by the author's inexperience, then those problems will be worked out with time and effort. Recommended.


  1. All right, the quote caught my attention, but your review has definitely got me interested in this book. It's nice to see you breaking the pattern every once in awhile, and it's even better when the book delivers well. :) Thanks for the honest critique, and I'll be on the lookout for this one.

  2. It's a good read, yes, and I think you'll be quite pleased. Now get back to Raised by Wolves! *whip crack*


  3. All right, all right, slave driver!


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