Some people might not find the drug allusions (“My First Time on Crahck”) humorous, but if you’re a Black Dagger Brotherhood aficionado, you’ll understand exactly what I’m talking about.
Dark Lover, the first book in J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series, comes out in hardback on October 4. Now, we all know that when a paranormal romance author is published in hardback, it means the author has already had massive paperback sales. For a paranormal romance author to have a six-year-old paperback reissued in hardback means she’s in the big leagues, and not just the genre big leagues. The BDB series is a genuine phenomenon. Whatever else one might say about Ward’s series, one thing’s indisputable—it’s not like any other vampire story.
At some point a couple of years ago, I started seeing comments about the series on romance blogs I frequent. No one ever described the books in detail— they just went on and on (and on) about how completely hooked they were and how it was the Best Vampire Series Ever. Even though I’d been burned out on vampire books for years (plus there’s my whole anti-necrophilia thing), I was intrigued. And because I’m compulsive about reading a series in order, I went out and bought Dark Lover.
Sigh. Where to begin?
Okay, first, all the criticisms you’ve ever heard about the books? They’re all true: The endless brand name dropping, the six-hundred-year-old vampires (and later, thirty-something Ivy League-educated surgeons) who talk in hip hop slang, the narrative tics (in the book that came before the latest book, all characters’ internal monologues were conducted in rhetorical question format), the thin world building, the over-the-top dialog, the shitkickers and leathers and ’you feel me’s and indefensible overuse of the letter “H”—it’s all valid.
And it was all evident in Dark Lover. But still I devoured that book and every one since. And frequently I’ve asked myself—why? Why am I so hooked on this?
Three reasons: the characters, the storytelling, and the sheer originality of the whole thing.
Last two first. It is really, really, really hard to come up with an original take on vampires. Think about all the bloodsucker romances you’ve read, and then tell me which ones were truly different. None? Very few?
The world that Ward has built in Caldwell, NY, isn’t like any other. These vampires aren’t dead, they’re just a difference species. They live for hundreds of years, but they’re not immortal. They eat, drink, shag, marry, raise kids. The only vampire tropes that apply here are blood and sun; these vampires only drink blood from each other, and exposure to sunlight is lethal.
Six badass, hypermasculine vampires, a fierce band of brothers, devote their lives to defending their race from the minions of a psychopathic semi-divine being. The origins of the vampire race is a complicated, fully developed tale which, while as over-the-top-veering-on-camp as the rest of the story, is unique.
Ward knows how to tell a story, knows how to suck you in and keep you reading past your bedtime. The dryer will buzz, the dogs will bark to go out, the phone will ring and your kids will cry piteously for food, but you’ll ignore it all. Even as you’re muttering “What the hell is it with these names?” and “This war has been going on for years and no one in town’s noticed the pale, baby-powdered scented guys, ever? Really?” and “If Darius was so rich, and loved Beth so much, why didn’t he find some way to support her financially even though he couldn’t let her know who he was? He watched her grow up in state foster care? That’s just messed up,” you’re still turning the page.
Originality and a gripping, if outlandish (but then again, this is vampires we’re talking about, so is outlandish really a valid criticism?) plot are two of the things that sucked me into Dark Lover and kept me reading. But they weren’t the main thing.
The main thing is the characters. Ward’s world building is thin, sometimes annoyingly so. But her characters tend to get up off the page and walk around. And don’t ask me how she makes such three-dimensional—yes, I said three-dimensional, mock me as you will—characters out of such exaggerated romance stereotypes (the Brothers are lethal with their enemies, tender with their women, smart, funny, great in bed, and even when they’re assholes, they’re sexy assholes) because I have no idea.
We meet all six brothers in Dark Lover, although this is the story of Wrath, the Blind King. He’s dark and dangerous and a bit of a dick until he meets Beth, the half-human, half-vampire woman who’ll be his mate. Once he and Beth get together—he intends to just see her through her Transformation, but he falls long before that—Beth meets the boys: Rhage, the beautiful and happy one; Zsdaist, the tortured one; Phury, the melancholy one; and Vishous, the psychic bisexual genius Dom whose demons are as bad as Zsdaist’s. (I love V.) The sixth brother is Butch, but in Dark Lover he’s still a human, a miserable alcoholic cop whose life is crap until he meets the Brothers and finally finds a place he belongs. You don’t see a lot of male bonding in vampire romance, but it’s the basis of the BDB.
As he stared at the empty plates and the half-full wineglasses, he realized he had nowhere to go. Nowhere he wanted to be. The isolation had never bothered him before. Actually, it had made him feel safer somehow. So it was kind of funny that being on his own didn’t seem like such a great thing now.
“Yo, cop. We’re heading for Screamer’s. You wanna come?”
Butch looked up at the doorway. Vishous was in the hall with Rhage and Phury behind him. The vampires had expectant looks on their faces, like they honestly wanted to hang with him.
Butch found himself grinning like the new kid who didn’t have to sit alone at lunch after all.
“Yeah, I could do with a bar crawl.”
As he stood up, he wondered if he should get casual. The brothers had changed into leathers, but he was loath to let the suit go. He loved the thing.
Screw it. He liked the threads; he was going to wear the threads. Even if they weren’t really him.
Butch buttoned the jacket, smoothing it down over his chest. He checked to make sure the handkerchief was still in a perfect fold.
“Come on, cop, you’re fabulous,” Rhage said with a burning smile.
The relationship between Butch and V is one of the best-loved and most mythic in fanficdom, and it’s set up at the end of Dark Lover. This is what I mean by original:
At that point, the rest of the gang members filed into the room. Their cold stares made Butch feel like a bug under glass. Or a roast beef about to be carved up.
Mr. Normal stepped forward and offered him a Scotch bottle. “You look like you could use some.”
Yeah, you think? Butch took a swig. “Thanks.”
“So can we kill him now?” said the one with the goatee and the baseball hat.
Beth’s man spoke harshly. “Back off, V.”
“Why? He’s just a human.”
“And my shellan is half-human. The man doesn’t die just because he’s not one of us.”
“Jesus, you’ve changed your tune.”
“So you need to catch up, brother.”
Butch got to his feet. If his death was going to be debated, he wanted in on the discussion. “I appreciate the support,” he said to Beth’s boy. “But I don’t need it.”
He went over to the guy with the hat, discreetly switching his grip on the bottle’s neck in case he had to crack the damn thing over a head. He moved in tight, so their noses were almost touching. He could feel the vampire heating up, priming for a fight.
“I’m happy to take you on, asshole,” Butch said. “I’ll probably end up losing, but I fight dirty, so I’ll make you hurt while you kill me.” Then he eyed the guy’s hat. “Though I hate clocking the shit out of another Red Sox fan.”
There was a shout of laughter from behind him. Someone said, “This is gonna be fun to watch.”
The guy in front of Butch narrowed his eyes into slits. “You true about the Sox?”
“Born and raised in Southie. Haven’t stopped grinning since ’04.”
There was a long pause. The vampire snorted. “I don’t like humans.”
“Yeah, well, I’m not too crazy about you bloodsuckers.”
Another stretch of silence. The guy stroked his goatee. “What do you call twenty guys watching the World Series?”
“The New York Yankees,” Butch replied.
The vampire laughed in a loud burst, whipped the baseball cap off his head, and slapped it on his thigh. Just like that, the tension was broken.
Butch let out a long breath, feeling like he’d just been missed by an eighteen-wheeler. As he took another swig from the bottle, he decided it had been one weird fucking night.
It’s the relationships among the Brothers that pack the most wallop in this series. The love stories are great, and Ward writes some awesomely hot sex, but once a heroine has had her book she sort of fades out and drifts through the background of subsequent books. Watching the Brothers interact is what keeps the reader coming back. Part of the reason Wrath falls in love with Beth is because she immediately takes to the Brothers, and she to them.
She gently lifted Rhage’s head and put the edge of the glass to his beautifully shaped lips. It took him five minutes to sip the liquid down. When he was finished, she started to get off the bed. She didn’t get far. With a great lurch, he pitched over onto his side and put his head in her lap, throwing one muscular arm around behind her.
He was seeking comfort.
Beth didn’t know what she could really do for him, but she put the glass aside and stroked his back, running her hand over his fearsome tattoo. She murmured things she wished someone had whispered to her when she felt ill. Hummed a little for him.
After a while, the tension left his skin and bones. He began breathing deeply.
When she was sure he was out cold, she carefully extracted herself from his grasp. As she turned to meet Wrath’s gaze, she braced herself. Surely he’d know there was nothing—
Shock stilled her. Wrath wasn’t mad. Far from it.
“Thank you,” he said hoarsely. The bow of his head was almost humble. “Thank you for caring for my brother.”
He took his sunglasses off.
And looked at her with total adoration.
Who wouldn’t love a big tough vampire who adores his mate?
Who wouldn’t love a series full of hot sex and true love and deep, deep bromance?
On some level, I think the BDB is like cocaine or heroin: You’re either predisposed to become hooked or you’re not. (Research has concluded that heroin is not universally addictive. Not everyone who tries it becomes addicted immediately, and some people never become addicted at all. It’s a matter of biochemistry.) (The same is true of Jane Austen novels.)
Would you be susceptible to the Brothers? Tomorrow’s your chance to find out.