Title: Dark Designs, Half Lives Series Book One
Author: Luisa Prieto
Publisher: MLR Press
Genre: Paranormal Dark Fantasy/Historical
Length: Novel (444 Pages)
Rating: 4.75 stars out of 5
Summary Review: A complex and darkly fascinating fantasy which I couldn’t stop reading, even when it scared the heck out of me.
When an enigmatic tattooed woman approaches freelance journalist Kyler Withers, he begins remembering a past life as a mage. Once known as Etherwolf, he served a sentient evil known as the Darkness.
Horrified, Kyler fights to keep his humanity. Against him are growing memories of the monster he previously was. Aiding him is the love he rediscovers he had for a powerful mage artist named Sorin. If Kyler cannot overcome his past, he’s afraid he’ll help the Darkness destroy everything, starting with his lover.
I had to wait a full day after finishing Dark Designs before I could attempt this review. The experience of reading it was intense and took me to some seriously dark places, and I wasn’t sure at first how I felt about it. Now I know, and the answer is: impressed. Very impressed.
The story begins with Kyler Withers, a journalist, returning to the US to try and rebuild his life after a terrible experience while volunteering as a teacher in South America. Within a few pages his attempts to shake off his nightmares and recapture normalcy are destroyed by the intervention of Rhune, a woman who claims to be a beloved friend and comrade of his – from his former life. It doesn’t take long before Kyler realises this woman isn’t crazy. The fact that her tattoos come to life, leave her skin and kill people is something of a hint. Kyler’s main problem, though, is that even as most of him is repulsed by the woman and her murderous acts, another part of him – a part which grows in power and dominance during the story – cherishes her and revels in her killings. That part is Etherwolf, a Knight of the malevolent force called the Darkness. In his last life, Etherwolf made Rhune seem warm and cuddly; his idea of a fun evening was to rape, torture and dismember an innocent young boy and then hand his victim’s still beating heart to the Darkness as a gift. And if what I’ve just written makes you cringe, this book is not for you.
The story’s second protagonist is Sorin, a college student and gifted artist in charge of his student newspaper and a rather interesting comic strip. Again, within pages of meeting him we see his life begin to fragment, as a sinister character called Avery – another servant of the Darkness – approaches him. Avery treats Sorin with every appearance of reverence and love, but reduces Sorin’s friend Blake to nothing more than ashes when Blake tries to get between them.
Both men manage to get away from their friend/attacker, but it’s clear that they won’t be free for long – especially since the trauma causes both of them to ‘converge’, meaning that the memories of their past lives begin to meld with their current consciousness, and they re-experience those lives once again as if for the first time. To call this traumatic would be to put it mildly.
I’m going to resist summarising the story anymore than that, because it becomes very complicated from here on, flicking backward and forward between the first time that Sorin and Etherwolf met hundreds of years ago and their present lives. We also see glimpses of the current and previous lives of several other people in the story, such Rhune, Avery – and Dean, a coffee shop owner who was the witch-hunter Asher in his past life. Some of the characters keep the same name in both lives, others have two names, and some, like Kyler/Kai/Etherwolf, have three.
This all sounds terribly confusing, but actually Ms Prieto has masterly control over all these flashbacks and flashforwards, and I only found myself hopping a couple of times, mostly with Sorin’s sections, since his voice, personality and name stay virtually unchanged in both lives. There’s a reason for that, but I’m not telling.
This book is beautifully written, and the author contrasts beauty and obscenity, life and death, light and dark, to create stunning and horrific images which are likely to stay with me for a long time. I only have two niggles with the writing. One would be the author’s over-use of the word ethereal. It’s a great word, but once you see it for the fifth or sixth time, it starts to feel tired. Secondly, because the historical characters come from many different countries, their inner and external dialogue is peppered with words and phrases from multiple languages. As the book went on there were several moments when this felt distracting. When a character is thinking, everything they’re saying is obviously being translated into English for us anyway, so why add random Italian or French words? But these are tiny problems which don’t really detract from the enjoyment of the novel.
Ms Prieto has a cunning way with her characters, and she tricks us into feeling interest in and empathy for people we would run from screaming in real life. I was also very impressed with the way that the story of the Darkness, the knights, founders and mages was told as a myth within a story and woven into the narrative so that it never felt like info-dumping. The section with the woman telling the child about The Beginning was really well done and gave me shivers.
I did wish that there had been more of a chance for the romance to flourish in this story. There was only one love scene, and Sorin and Kai/Etherwolf only actually meet twice, at the beginning and end of the book, in their prior life. With one of the protagonists wavering back and forward between whether he wanted to murder or make love to the other for most of the story, the events had to be structured this way, but it made the novel feel more like a fantasy that happened to have gay leads, rather than an M/M fantasy. Of course, there are further books to come, and I expect that when Kyler and Sorin meet in real life, probably in the next book, things will be explosive. If they don’t kill each other first.
The single reason Dark Designs didn’t get 5 stars from me relates to the above. Clearly, Half Lives is going to be one of those series where the action is continuous and the whole thing feels like a single, long book. As a result, the ending of Dark Designs is left open and nearly all the questions raised are left unanswered, which meant that the book felt incomplete. But while I couldn’t judge this book as a 5, I have a feeling that if the author can maintain the high standard set here, the series as a whole might be.