There are probably only a handful of devoted readers of mainstream paranormal romance that have yet to read the Black Dagger Brotherhood series by J.R. Ward. Although I’m not an exclusive reader of romance (whether paranormal or other), I began reading this series in 2006 and while I enjoyed the early books, my interest in the series began to wan and I easily let go of the series in 2008 following the release of Lover Enshrined (Book 6). But, with the recent publication of the tenth book, Lover Reborn, which features the story of Tohrment the last of the original Brothers, I’ve picked up the books once again to catch-up on the newer storylines and characters in anticipation of reading Book 10. As I’ve never reviewed any of the books in this series I thought it would be interesting to post my thoughts on some of the stories in retrospective, starting with the first book Dark Lover.
As the first book in the Black Dagger Bortherhood (BDB) saga, I consider Dark Lover foundational to the series as a whole and the book upon which the author springboards the BDB world and introduces many of the characters that are set for stories in future books. While it’s not the strongest written book in the series, it is a solid beginning.
Warning: Spoilers Ahead
Wrath is the only pure bred vampire remaining on the planet. He is the son of the deceased King of the vampires, but has fought his rightful ascension to the throne for centuries refusing to lead his race. As a young pre-transitioned vampire he witnessed the brutal murder of his parents at the hands of the Lessening Society – un-dead and soulless humans that hunt vampires – and he’s singularly focused on revenge and the extermination of the Lessers. As would be King, he is also the leader of the BDB a select breed of vampires with heightened genetic make-up that serve as warriors and protectors of the race. But with only a handful of Brothers left to defend vampire civilians and a growing number of Lessers, the race is in great threat of extinction.
Beth Randall is the half-breed daughter of the Brother Darius, but having been raised in foster care since infancy has no knowledge of her parents, or that she’s nearing her transition from human to vampire. When Darius tragically meets his demise it falls to Wrath to find her and make sure that she survives the dangerous transition by feeding her his blood. He plans to help her and then find her a vampire male with which to mate. But his plans are thwarted when he begins to bond with Beth and cannot let her go. With this opening sequence of events that take place in the sweltering heat of July 2006 (BDB year one), Dark Lover unfolds and we are introduced to the Brotherhood and a new world of vampires.
I recall my initial impressions of Dark Lover being focused on the author’s distinct take on an otherwise overdone vampire trope in paranormal romance. In this context one of the strengths of this book is the manner in which the author portrays her discrete version of vampire mythology, introduces their world and the central characters in it, and at the same time interweaves the intricacies of this world with the love story without detracting from the overall romance. While the BDB series is characterized as paranormal romance, there is also an urban fantasy feel to the series, beginning with Dark Lover. I attribute this to a number of factors, including the predominantly urban-scape in which the story is set, the supernatural elements, the more explicit on-page violence due to the war with the Lessers, and the Brothers’ propensity for all things urban culture, in particular their manner of speak and their music.
The writing is a mix of hip-hop artist speak and American street slang combined with the more formal syntax and idiomatic expressions of the vampire Old Language and this becomes J.R. Ward’s distinct vernacular throughtout the series. The story is told in the third person from the perspective of several characters and the writing of multiple points of view is another signature of this author. Although the main narrative alternates between the perspectives of Wrath and Beth, Dark Lover begins with Darius’ viewpoint as he prepares to ask Wrath to assist in Beth’s transition. In a bold move that is relatively uncommon in romance and signals the inherent danger and violence of the BDB world the author kills off Darius in the introductory scene, thereby leaving Wrath to find and care for Beth and the Brotherhood to avenge his death.
Through Wrath’s perspective and his initiation of Beth into the vampire world, the author outlines the central attributes of the vampire race everything from their biology and physiology; to their origins, religion and deity; their nomenclature, culture, customs and ceremonies; and their ancient language, which favours the letter “h”. The story also features an interesting mix of secondary character perspectives including: Marissa, Wrath’s shellan (wife) in name only as they are in a loveless arranged marriage; homicide detective Brian “Butch” O’Neal, Beth’s friend and the only human allowed to enter the BDB world; and Mr. Xavier (Mr. X) the central Lesser character in this story.
It is clear from the characterisation that the author is very much focused on the male characters in this story and in the overall series. The Brothers are portrayed almost as caricatures of the alpha male, and given their select genetic breeding as a vampire subspecies their primal vampire instincts and traits are exponentially personified. Every aspect of the alpha male archetype is exaggerated in the Brothers – from their immense physical size and strength, their intense territoriality and aggressiveness to their hyper-sexualized appetites. Even the character of Butch is portrayed in this manner albeit within the limitations of being human.
Wrath is quite the alluring and charismatic character and easily becomes one of my favourites in this series. Intense, highly aggressive and dangerous, with an innate sensuality, he embodies all the necessary warrior attributes despite his near blindness. As heir to the throne he also possesses all the necessary qualities of majesty and leadership. His reluctance to lead comes from a deep-seated self-loathing and shame in not being able to save his parents from the Lessers.
It is also through Wrath’s perspective that the members of the Brotherhood are introduced to the reader and we learn that despite their tremendous strengths each Brother is cursed in some fashion. The author devotes some page time to all of the Brothers and even at a glimpse they provide plenty of writing fodder for the books to come. Despite Rhage’s beauty and charm and Zsadist’s scary demeanour, my focus was on Tohrment, Wrath’s second in command and the most levelheaded of the bunch. I liked the contrast of Tohr’s calmness and dependability against the rowdiness and hair-trigger temperament of the other Brothers. And then there’s Butch, or Badass as named by Beth, and the only human allowed into the world of the Brotherhood. Although a secondary character, Butch almost steals the show when he goes nose-to-nose with Wrath and the Brothers in a chivalrous attempt to protect Beth and in the process falls face-first in awe and lust with Marissa. It is virtually impossible to not like this Scotch-guzzling, former cokehead, burnt-out cop with a death wish and a big heart.
There is a faint undercurrent of homoeroticism in relation to the Brotherhood. It is deeply sub-textual and almost out of reach but it is there nonetheless. While Wrath sums up the loyalty and closeness of the Brothers to one another through the adage of “care for my brothers, care for me,” it is through Butch’s perspective that the author almost parodies this undercurrent when Butch goads the Brothers with what I consider to be one of the more amusing scenes in the book:
“‘Tell me something boys,’ he drawled. ‘Do you wear that leather to turn each other on? I mean is it a dick thing with you all?’”
The author also presents the female characters within the continuum of the female archetype in romance. Having been raised in the human world, Beth is portrayed as a strong, independent, self-possessed and of course beautiful woman that has the confidence to stand up to Wrath and his overbearing ways. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Marissa, the beauty of the species and a waif-like virgin that’s been stuck in a loveless marriage to Wrath for centuries because of vampire societal expectations. Whereas Wrath outlines the overall nomenclature of the vampire world through his perspective, it is through Marissa’s narrative that we come to learn of the outdated and almost feudal rules that govern vampire social relationships, and in particular male-female relationships within vampire aristocracy (glymera) and the equally restricted role of females within vampire society. Although Beth is the main female protagonist, I felt that the author only skimmed the surface of this character and that she lacked a certain level of depth. I found Marissa to be a more fleshed out character, better written and with a richer point of view, despite her diminutive disposition and anachronism in comparison to Beth. Rounding-off the female cast is Tohr’s beloved shellan, Wellasandra, who befriends Beth. Although Wellsie makes a brief appearance in the story there is a well-nuanced sense of foreboding in respect of this character.
Even with the importance of the world building, the romance remains very much in the forefront in Dark Lover. And despite the author’s unique and contemporary take on vampire lore in fiction, the romance story is quite traditional. One of the canons of the BDB world introduced in Dark Lover is the deep physical and emotional bonding and fierce territoriality and over-protectiveness of the Brothers when it comes to their love interests. Through Wrath we learn that all vampire males, in particular those of the warrior subspecies, instantly bond with their love and emit a bonding scent to mark their territory as a warning to other males. The “mine” moment as it has come to be known within the BDB series feeds right into the the territoriality of the Brothers, as well as the concept of the “one and only soul mate” as part of the happily ever after – a mainstay of romance. Another aspect of the writing in Dark Lover that points to a more traditional romance is the author’s use of euphemisms in her description of body parts during the sex scenes. I found this aspect of the writing to be somewhat incongruous given the explicitness of the sex scenes, the very contemporary disposition of both protagonists, Wrath’s hyper-sexualized nature and Beth’s both initiation and willing acquiescence, and Wrath’s abundant cursing and course language throughout the book.
The love story is wrapped up in the inherent dangers and violence of the BDB world because of the war with the Lessening Society. The author devotes enough page time to the Lessers in this book and through Mr. Xavier’s introspection the reader gets a fundamental understanding of these undead creatures and just how dangerous they are to vampires. There is much action and violence involving the Lessers in Dark Lover leading to the climax of the story. And this, coupled with one of the final scenes in the book that ends in a cliffhanger sealed the deal in building my anticipation for the books to come.
I enjoyed Dark Lover because of the mixture of the world building, the author’s discrete take on vampires and somewhat less the romance. However, stripped of the accoutrement of the vampire world, the story is, in essence, a very traditional romance whereby the tortured, troubled and quite reluctant bad boy hero is saved and redeemed by the love of the beautiful and sympathetic heroine. Despite my misgivings regarding the characterisation of Beth and the tendency toward purple prose in respect of the sex scenes, the ultimate draw of this book, and the series as a whole, is the pure fantasy escape offered by the vampire version of oozing testosterone, otherwise know as the Brotherhood. The kitsch and camp of the exaggerated alpha male vampire warrior is part and parcel of the addictive nature of the BDB series and after reading Dark Lover I was not immune.
If there are any readers of (paranormal) romance left on the planet who have yet to read this series but are interested in doing so, Dark Lover is the place to start.
Dark Lover by J.R. Ward is available globally through a multitude of bookseller outlets. For North American readers it is available at Amazon Canada and US, Indigo/Chapters (Canada) and Barnes and Noble (US).