So I’ve never listened to the Bright Sessions, but I did read The Infinite Noise. I just wanted you to get my frame of reference before going into my review. I have always really loved the idea of the world in The Bright Sessions books. The concept of super powered teens trying to live their lives and navigate their powers. While I enjoyed A Neon Darkness, I definitely enjoyed it less than the first. Keep reading this book review if you also love that idea!
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.
(Disclaimer: I received this book from Netgalley. This has not impacted my review which is unbiased and honest.)
While I loved the concept of A Neon Darkness, as well as the themes of control and friendship, I felt a little frustrated with Robert/Damien. I think a degree of that is natural, because he makes it pretty easy to do so. Because of his power, he learned early on that he can get pretty much anyone to do whatever he wants. If you had that power as a teen, what would you use it for? And, just what you might expect, it has some pretty disastrous consequences not only for the people he uses his powers on, but also himself.
As readers, we want Robert to realize how manipulative his powers on. It’s also insidious and beyond terrifying, because it introduces doubt into all his interactions. And the wants, dreams, and plans of his friends and family. Did they really want to go out with him and confess their secrets to Robert? How can we ever really have an honest relationship? I think A Neon Darkness has the potential to be polarizing to readers, because it examines not only this, but what happens to Robert. Can Robert change, does he want to?
Robert’s Power and His Own Heroism
While reading A Neon Darkness, I was met with so many uncomfortable moments. It’s hard not to empathize with his friends in the wake of his intriguing, but terrifying power. There’s a real sense of sadness and empathy for Robert as well. How he’s scared to let people in, because they can not only challenge us, but also reject us. It’s a universal fear we all have. We do not all have Robert’s power though and A Neon Darkness becomes a story about how he navigates these fears.
A Neon Darkness remains a novel that while it frustrated me, was intriguing on some level. We always want to be the hero of our own story. But what happens if we aren’t? We all know the saying, “with great power comes great responsibility”, but who enforces that? For me, my intrigue with the A Neon Darkness came with the exploration of this question. And the associated wonder if someone can put in the hard work to change. (Though it features Robert, who is a white cis seemingly straight able bodied man with the power of persuasion, which is kind of like a series of my worst nightmares and a symbol of the world).
If you’re a fan of the Bright Sessions, then I think you would enjoy this origin novel. It also introduces some concepts, and maybe characters, who might feature in later novels. For me, it was a novel that has an intriguing premise, but one which I found myself frustrated with in the longer term. It’s not just the fact that it was hard for me to like Robert. In terms of character depth, I felt like there wasn’t a whole lot of evolution and the theme exploration revolved around that one topic. Then again, what didn’t click with me were exactly what makes up A Neon Darkness and Robert.
This upwards battle he has with his powers and own past trauma. The constant questions in his mind about who he wants to be. Which leads me to believe it’s just kind of a, “not in the headspace to read about this kind of story now” moment. Maybe I’m just too terrified by the power of persuasion, anyone with me after Jessica Jones? Because that’s definitely the vibe I get from A Neon Darkness. That’s why if this sounds like your thing, please pick it up.
My reviews, while I try to remain honest and unbiased, are still going to be read through my own perspective. We may have different likes and dislikes, things that fascinate us.