A Neon Darkness by Lauren Shippen (The Bright Sessions #2)
Publisher: Tor Teen
Release Date: September 29, 2020
Cover Artist: Victo Ngai and Esther S. Kim (Jacket Design)
Summary: 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.
My Rating: ★★★★☆
My Thoughts: A Neon Darkness is a prequel and origin story to one of the main antagonists of The Bright Sessions podcast, taking place before the events of the show! Set in LA during the early 2000’s this is an introspective novel that explores themes of loneliness, humanity, and consequence through the lens of a character who doesn’t even realize they are turning into a villain. A great addition to The Bright Sessions universe that answers the question: What if the villain of your story is you?
As a long-time listener of TBS, I couldn’t wait to read this book because the main character Robert Gorham (or Damien) is easily one of my favorite villains ever! In this world, there are those with special powers called Atypicals and Damien’s rare ability is that he can impose his want onto others, much so that they essentially do whatever he wants. Over the course of the early seasons within the show he becomes quite a powerful character, interested mainly in furthering his knowledge about other Atpyicals and his own ability. Before diving into my review, I will say this book does mess with the canon of the original podcast a bit, but overall I thought it gave Shippen an interesting way to explore more of this fascinating universe she’s created.
At the age of 13 Robert left his quiet, small town life in Nebraska in search of something more. Over the course of the novel there’s small paragraphs or pages of flashbacks interspersed within the story that slowly begin to fill in the gaps of a situation that caused him to leave, mainly involving his unique powers and his parents, which he refers to as “Them.” At 18, he finds his way to Los Angeles he has a very idealistic view of the city, planning to start over once again in any way he can.
I truly had no worries about how Lauren Shippen would navigate a villain’s POV because within the podcast you know how much care and attention she’s put into these characters. She does a fantastic job at humanizing even the most morally questionable characters, if anything it made me realize why creators are hesitant at crafting stories from villains perspectives. It can be uncomfortable and also frustrating because, as Neon Darkness has shown, everyone is capable of change but not many will choose to act on it.
Robert soon meets a crew of misfits called “Unusuals,” this is a turning point because he’s never met who have abilities like him. Throughout the story he learns more about his own powers, the underlying motivators that compel him to use these abilities, even how the pain and loneliness he feels becomes a pillar for his own selfish behavior.
Damien, we realize, is someone who just wants a family, to be loved, and no longer wander through life alone. So the main story essentially follows him as he hops from place to place around LA, realizes that this rag tag crew could be the new found family he’s been looking for, and how his role in the group is put into jeopardy when a missing friend returns home.
The “Unusuals” comprised of Indah whose a bartender (who can sense the abilities of others though she has no powers of her own), Neon whose a mechanic (she can control electricity), and Marley, a veteran, (who can see into the past) let Damien in and allow him to join in their group over the course of about a year. However, Damien has struggled understanding the dynamics of family, friendship, and he doesn’t realize how the unintentional selfish use his powers to keep this misfit crew together, will be his downfall.
As the Unusuals worry about their friend Blaze, intertwined within the story of Damien’s new LA life, we learn a bit more about a mysterious figure called Isaiah, whose keeping tabs on this group.
While the groups powers are vastly different from his own, Robert/Damien learns more about the potential he has by staying with them and being their friend. Though he genuinely cares about their acceptance and care for him, it’s interesting that despite him wanting a deeper connection with others, he manages to still keep everyone at arms length and still be such a vulnerable character. He’s given quite a few times to see things from a new perspective and reconsider his egotistical attitude, but then the question becomes: Does he really want to change? The further he gets lost in his own head, it makes for an interesting character study into a exploring a villain/antihero who is so deeply human. Shippen has mentioned time after time that she doesn’t describe Damien as a “villain” specifically and through her attention to the craft of character, you see her focus on creating someone who at their core just feels so real.
The plot (while from the outside seeming repetitive) actually presented a normalcy for Robert in ways he hadn’t experienced in a long time, I think that alongside the interactions he has with Indah, Neon, Marley, and later on Blaze, let us readers begin to pinpoint how he there’s a slow, but steady build as he begins to learn about others as a means to have control over any situation he’s in.
This prequel answered questions I had never even considered when listening to the podcast: How does his ability work or feel from his perspective? Where did the name Damien come from? Why did he choose to give into this manipulative/selfish behavior when he has limitless protentional to use his powers for a better purpose?
As a reader you really empathize and sympathize for Robert/Damien, I know I definitely did because I felt like there was finally this understanding as to how his power works from his point-of-view. Additionally, with how Shippen developed his personal journey, it’s joined by the fact that his wants and desires slowly begin to meld within his general consciousness so unintentionally to the point where he can’t even draw the line between what he truly wants vs. what he wants others to want on his behalf. That was one of the most intriguing parts of Robert’s character that no doubt podcast listeners will have a lot of fun learning more about too.
Some interesting scenes that caught my attention which gave me more of a different understanding about his powers was when I began to notice that while he is attempting to connect and be more vulnerable with the people around him, he instead uses his powers to get people to give him the answers he wants to hear as well. So its not just about realizing he can get people to do what he wants, but also he’s in a sense reaffirm or establish his perspective on a situation (if that makes sense)? That was a new side of his ability I’d never even considered which was interesting to learn more about, especially from his perspective.
One of the strongest storylines within this novel is seeing how Robert learns his place in the group as dynamics change, while seeing his reaction/emotional arc become an anchor for his morally questionable behavior. It shows how his power became much stronger and how listeners can learn more about it from his own perspective, but the question remains “what if you are the villain in this story?” Shippen navigates that with such humanity and very specific lens that makes it an interesting read for sure, especially as Damien is such a unique character!
Now to discuss a bit more how the book deviates from the canon of the show: I did notice that some lines feel like they were directly lifted from the podcast (which takes place during 2015-) which I think was a great inclusion because it helped to present some of the bigger questions and themes that we encounter with Damien from the series once he’s in his late 20’s. I also thought it was surprising (maybe disappointing?) that Damien drinks quite a lot in this book. The reason I’m on the fence about that decision is because, the reasoning behind that in the podcast felt like a somewhat important detail that was part of Damien’s character for a reason. There’s a mysterious aura about him in the show and using the canon for a completely original story, gives lots of context. Overall though I think the deviation from canon is both a pro and con. A pro for how it lets fans learn a bit more about TBS universe while not completely following Damien utterly alone for the entirety of the story, giving him an emotional character arc. Yet, a con for how it disregards the little details of his character from the podcast I personally thought were very interesting or important.
There’s also a couple Easter eggs that I fans will really enjoy: A precursor to “Atypicals” being “Unusuals”, the mysterious figure who I think was in reference to The AM (?), even learning about Robert/Damien’s experience with therapy before meeting Dr. Bright. These were just some really fun tidbits that were intriguing to see on page!
The audiobook by the way is fantastic! As you may (or may not know) sometimes an audiobook can be a hit or miss for me, but this easily makes it onto the list of the best as it’s done by the voice actor from the show, Charlie Ian. There’s also a Q&A at the end that gives even more background on how this book interestingly connects with the podcast through an interview with the author.
As for the representation, there’s characters identified as Black (Neon), Muslim and Indonesian background (Indah), and Blaze (Asian). Neon and Indah are also a sapphic couple.
I think if anything my main con is that while Robert’s journey is interesting, it can feel a bit aimless (lots of back and forth between new homes and talks with the Unusuals), it felt like there could have been just a couple more plot threads added in. While this book is very much focused on Damien’s descent into “villainy” as he learns more about himself and his ability, it very much feels like there’s such a specific route for his arc we’re not really left to explore elsewhere within the story either (if that makes sense?). It felt like there could have been more opportunity to explore different layers being presented in the story. The writing is also very character-focused, so the worldbuilding can feel a bit sparse at times. There’s also small paragraphs or pages from the past of Damien/The Unusuals that could have been formatted differently so it doesn’t blend too much with the present storyline.
Surprisingly while reading this book, I came to an interesting realization. Now this is my personal opinion, but I truly believe if you have not listened to the podcast or sepcifically Damien’s episodes, this book and it’s plot will probably not impact you as much. The story and emotional moments of his character arc will be more enjoyable if you learn more about Damien’s character from the show first. So if you are looking to dive into this series [which I highly recommend] I’d say please listen to the wonderful Bright Sessions podcast before doing so and check out these books!
Each of these books follow a different character from the show and I’m interested in seeing what will be the focus for the last book featuring a dreamwalker named Rose. I also recently learned that spin-off series like The AM Archives and College Tapes will be available for free starting this year and I’m just so excited to dive back into this world again (especially as I started relistening to the show again while reading Neon).
A Neon Darkness is the newest addition to the Bright Sessions world, perfect for long-time fans looking to get more background on the series antagonist! Through an exploration of privilege, power, and the nature of connections, this is a book that will make you question the human nature of villains. Shippen has crafted a unique story about the descent into villainy by exploring the past of a beloved character from her podcast. This is a character-driven novel that sheds light on an antagonist shrouded in mystery!