Born To Darkness, by Suzanne Brockmann

>> Tuesday, April 17, 2012

TITLE: Born To Darkness
AUTHOR: Suzanne Brockmann

PAGES: 528
PUBLISHER: Ballantine

SETTING: US in the near future
TYPE: Action romance
SERIES: 1st in the Fighting Destiny series

As the New York Times bestselling author of the Troubleshooters series and a “superstar of romantic suspense” (USA Today), Suzanne Brockmann has an acclaimed history of taking readers’ breath away with her novels of hot passion and high adventure. Now she takes her talent for sexy, action-packed storytelling in a thrilling new direction: forward—into a future, both fantastic and frightening, that only the brilliant Brockmann could envision.

Dishonorably discharged, former Navy SEAL Shane Laughlin is down to his last ten bucks when he finally finds work as a test subject at the Obermeyer Institute, a little-known and believed-to-be-fringe scientific research facility. When he enters the OI compound, he is plunged into a strange world where seemingly mild-mannered scientists—including women half his size—can kick his highly skilled ass.

Shane soon discovers that there are certain individuals who possess the unique ability to access untapped regions of the brain with extraordinary results—including telekinesis, super strength, and reversal of the aging process. Known as “Greater-Thans,” this rare breed is recruited by OI, where they are rigorously trained using ancient techniques to cultivate their powers and wield them responsibly.

But in the depths of America’s second Great Depression, where the divide between the haves and the have-nots has grown even wider, those who are rich—and reckless—enough have a quick, seductive alternative: Destiny, a highly addictive designer drug that can make anyone a Greater-Than, with the power of eternal youth. The sinister cartel known as The Organization has begun mass-producing Destiny, and the demand is epidemic. But few realize the drug’s true danger, and fewer still know the dirty secret of Destiny’s crucial ingredient.

Michelle “Mac” Mackenzie knows the ugly truth. And as one of the Obermeyer Institute’s crack team of operatives, she’s determined to end the scourge of Destiny. But her kick-ass attitude gets knocked for a loop when she finds that one of the new test subjects is none other than Shane, the same smoldering stranger who just rocked her world in a one-night stand. Although Shane isn’t a Greater-Than like Mac, as an ex-SEAL, he’s got talents of his own. But Mac’s got powerful reasons to keep her distance from him—and reasons that are just as strong to want him close. She’s used to risking her life, but now, in the midst of the ultimate war on drugs, she must face sacrificing her heart.
Shane Laughlin used to be a SEAL, but after his last mission (told in this short story) went terribly wrong, he was dishonourably discharged and blacklisted. In the world this is set, the US in the relatively near future, this means that getting a respectable job has become pretty much impossible. Down to his last dollars, Shane opts to accept an offer from the mysterious Obermayer Institute to become a test subject. He's wary, as there are bad stories about that sort of job, but the Institute seems reputable and they're promising him that no drugs are involved.

He will have to live on-site, though, so Shane decides to spend his last night of real freedom getting some much-needed recreational sex. He's shocked when what was supposed to be a casual bar hook-up turns out to be the best, most-intense sexual experience of his life. He wants more, but his partner is reluctant, and she needs to be convinced to agree to meeting up again in a week. It doesn't take that long, though, as it turns out that Mac is one of the first people Shane sees when he reports at the Obermeyer Institute.

Mac, you see, is something known as a Greather-Than, one of the most powerful. The explanations Brockmann provides of exactly what that is and how it works are detailed and nuanced, but basically, it's something to do with how their brains work. Those with higher degree of what's called "integration" develop what look like superpowers... the ability to heal themselves more quickly, superhuman strength, telepathy, all sorts of things, and they vary depending on the individual. With hard work, people with potential can get to higher levels of integration. Shane is one such person, and that's why he was invited in.

As Shane arrives at the Institute, all hell is about to break lose. Mac and her colleagues spend their time battling The Organization, a group that is producing a powerful and exorbitantly expensive drug that mimics the effects of true integration. Unfortunately, it also creates a fatal addiction. And even worse, the way the drug is produced is truly nightmarish, requiring the kidnapping of young female Potentials and the harvesting of the hormones they release when terrified. The Institute tries to get to such girls as soon as it identifies them, but The Organization has got its own way of getting there first and kidnapping them.

This was what happened to a girl called Nika, who showed great potential. Mac's boss, Dr. Joseph Bach is determined to help find her, and brings in the girl's sister, Anna, before The Organization can get to her, too. And also involved in helping find Nika are another of the most powerful Greater-Thans, Stephen Diaz, as well as one of the doctors, Elliott Zerkowski.

This might be a new series, but it's still trademark Brockmann, with a diverse ensemble cast. The focus of the romance here is on Shane and Mac, and it's a pretty good one. Shane is crazy about Mac from the start, and I liked how Brockmann showed that it wasn't just the very strong physical attraction, but liking and affection as well. Mac, however, has quite a few (completely justified) hang-ups, which make her very reluctant to trust these feelings. The thing is that one of the things she can do is to manipulate a powerful attraction to her in men, which is quite useful, but at the same time, makes her very uncertain about how to know when their feelings are real. Interesting issue, but I did think the dynamic between her and Shane got a bit repetitive after a while. Still, on the whole, I really liked it.

Oh, and I should mention that I did feel a bit disappointed that Brockmann found it necessary to make Mac's main powers be empathy and the power to be irresistibly attractive to men. Can we think of any other powers more stereotypically female? It's weird, because Mac is the least stereotypically femenine person you can think of. Maybe Brockmann was compensating for this? Oh, well, she does use these powers to be a real warrior, fearless and resourceful, so in the end, I was satisfied.

Anyway, we also get a couple of other relationships developing. First there's Elliott and Stephen. Stephen has had a secret crush on Elliott for years, and Elliott never dreamed someone like Stephen, a modern-day superhero, could like nerdy him. Well, everything comes out in the open here, and it was sweet. A bit sappy, I'm afraid, enough that I cringed in embarrassment a couple of times, but I liked them both.

There's also Joseph and Anna, whose relationship is going much more slowly, and is a much more complicated one. It will be good to see what develops there.

Much as I was interested in the characters, though, the most remarkable thing in the book is the world Brockmann has created. As I mentioned, it's the the US in the near future, a country mired in a sort of second Great Depression. Everything is crumbling, the Government is broke, and the way they've found to keep things going is to privatise everything and let public services be pretty much run by corporations. We see that in an earlier scene when Anna goes to the police station to report her young sister missing. Speaking to the policeman on duty, she discovers that even for a young teen, cuts in resources mean she's now required to wait 72 hours before she can be officially a missing person. And even after the 72 hours, she'll have to pay a fee to get the girl on the missing persons list. Of course, she can pay an extra, pretty steep fee to expedite things and add her to the list right now. And if she wants an actual detective to look at the case, the fee is even higher.

As with the best dystopia, the scary thing about this is that it's a logical continuation of things that are happening already. Take the fact that in Brockmann's world, most states have banned contraception. That feels positively prescient on her part, given the emergence of that creep Santorum.

To make things even more tragic, it feels as if these are all relatively recent developments, so people still remember how things used to be... how things should be. This reminded me a bit of Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, a book that made a huge impression on me (and for which I've got a draft review half-written -I'll have to finalise it soon).

The whole issue of the Greater-Thans and their mental powers and how they work was as well-developed as the world (to the point that at times, the detailed experiments on what exactly they could do with their minds got slightly too painstakingly explained). Brockmann has really thought about this, quite clearly. There's a lot even her characters don't know about how things work, since it's all a very new area, but I got the feeling there are rules here, even if only the author knows about it, and that she won't just change the way her world works to get out of a plotting pickle.

Before I finish this review (it's turned into quite the mammoth one), I really should say something about the suspense plot with The Organization kidnapping the young girls. It's really, really disturbing, so be warned. There's quite a lot of graphic violence and it reads very dark. It works very well in raising the stakes and impress on us the importance of the Institute's work, but the complete amorality strained believability a bit. It wasn't a matter of loads of people turning a blind eye to bad things that they could kind of explain away in their own minds, it was these loads of people actively, knowingly participating in evil. I'm not sure I bought it completely, but it will be interesting to see where this goes.

MY GRADE: Even having a few little problems with it, I liked it enough for a B+.


Li 17 April 2012 at 21:31  

I am about halfway through and struggling to finish, TBH. The "fluctuating integration levels" and "let's see what happens when we have sex" conversations are starting to bore me. And I agree with you - too much detail about the experimenting and powers!

I'm encouraged by your grade though - may pick it up again later this week...

Rosario 20 April 2012 at 06:41  

You know what that reminded me of? Some of Mercedes Lackey's books in the Elemental Masters series, when she has a character who has to learn magic. It does get to be a bit much!

Espana 2 June 2012 at 10:50  

I've read all of Suzanne Brockmann's books, and I am a voracious reader of all fiction genres. When I read that she was stepping slightly outside the straight romance-genre fold into a dystopian/paranormal plot with a few romance touches, I was excited. Overall, I enjoy her characters and plots, and I wanted to see what she'd accomplish in a new playpen. However, I am rather disappointed in the result. While I found the concept of her new world interesting, and the characters were distinct and memorable, the book as a whole was rather "meh." The storytelling was bogged down in the mechanics/science/testing of the psychic powers, to the determent of everything else. Very little time was spent exploring the rather unusual world, and the characters became rather flat and predictable.

Rosario 4 June 2012 at 19:48  

Hi Espana, sorry your message was stuck in moderation for so long, I've been away! I think I liked this a bit better than you, but I do agree with the weak points you identify. Maybe now that she's established how things work, she'll be able to concentrate more on the storytelling for book 2!

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