This review is part of my judging effort for the SPSFC. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.
Team Space Lasagna’s penultimate SPSFC book was Monster of the Dark, Mirrors in the Dark Book 1, by K.T. Belt.
Monster of the Dark is the tale of a girl taken from her parents by the Psi Corps when she turns out to have psychic powers, and her gruelling training-transformation into an inhuman killing machine for the overall (but rather vaguely outlined) benefit of the human race. The Clairvoyants, in their close communing with “the Dark” that is the psychic shadow within them that gives them their powers, are living weapons that enable most of the happy human sheep to go on living their lives in peace and plenty. A literally dark underside to the future utopia Belt introduces us to.
I admit I was a little put off by the premise, and if I’d known the whole book was basically going to be a training montage I might have been even more put off, but on balance I’m glad I stuck with it. The story is fresh and unique, a slow-burn superhero origin story that allows us to really get immersed in this very specific corner of the overall world. Although make no mistake – Carmen kills the dog. The dog is there to be killed. That happens. If the dog getting killed as part of a living-weapon initiation thing is going to upset you, you’re gonna have a bad time. But if you didn’t see it coming the moment the puppy was introduced, honestly you kind of deserve it. Get it together.
While the training and the dehumanisation was a major theme, I was more fascinated by the contrast between the tight-focus and the overall worldbuilding. Carmen is basically front-and-centre throughout the book, aside from some brief switches in point of view that still remain tightly focussed on the Clairvoyants’ compound, and her battle to maintain her own identity and humanity through twelve years of brutal shaping and indoctrination is extremely intimate. This is entirely what the story is about … and yet, there is a whole lot going on outside her room, outside the compound, outside of the planet they’re currently on.
The sorten and the terrasaurs and the Eternals, the interstellar war and deep history and humanity’s interplanetary empire, all of it was just hinted at on the outskirts of this single-human drama, and I found that captivating. This is a space-age galaxy-wide tapestry but you only see glimpses of it, because it is so centred on this one department of psychic killers for defence, and specifically this one trainee and her struggles. It was extremely well set-up and executed.
Now that said, I’m sorry but in my opinion the fight scenes were just too long and dull. That’s on me though, I am a known and confirmed disliker of kick punch spin flip roundhouse piledriver prose, especially when it goes on for pages and pages. It was necessary here, I think, because that was what the book was for, but it just didn’t do it for me. If you like that stuff, this is going to be great (especially if you also hate dogs). The inevitable showdown between Artemis and Edge was hyped up and telegraphed enough that the outcome would have been far more entertaining with twenty fewer pages of kicking and punching, and just … an epiphany and abrupt obliteration of the annoying techs-and-management favourite. I was hoping for that – I always hope for it, and it always goes in the unsatisfying slog direction instead. It wouldn’t have ultimately changed the equals / unlikely allies dynamic, because there seemed to be little in the way of stakes as far as death was concerned. Oh that brings me to another thing.
The whole death and resurrection mechanic needed to be made more clear, it’s definitely a cool plot device but as it was, it tended to remove tension from any given conflict rather than change the landscape in a more interesting way. It was cool though, so I don’t know. When was death final, when was it reversible, and what were the consequences in the world outside the compound? I might have just missed it but I ultimately felt left in the dark (heh) about how this whole thing worked.
All in all, Artemis and the rivalry could have been introduced and handled differently – but this is just a pacing and trope-craft gripe. Maybe she gets a backstory later? This seems fairly likely since she is clearly a recurring character if not a secondary protagonist, but in that case maybe more of her origin should have come before the fight? Which, I can’t say this enough, should have been shorter. But only for my sake.
And another thing. After the slightly-too-long showdown fight, we’re given a conclusion that … let’s call it unsatisfying because I wouldn’t want to overstate it. It was a cool way to show Janus’s superiority, but … is Janus a main character here? I was hoping not, and it certainly didn’t seem to turn out that way since Janus then just … left the story? So what was the point of that? I’m confused. Janus was replaced with Kali in a development that seemed intriguing but then … turned out to just be a new handler. I’ll tell you what I was really hoping for, I was hoping that all these little deity-references would turn out to reflect some aspect of the training program. But if that was the case, it was folded in a bit too subtly for this dumb dumb.
Still, I don’t want to sit here nitpicking. The whole thing hung together in the end, just … in some difficult-to-define ways, I think the story could have been tightened up too.
Aside from these entirely subjective mutterings, and a few minor language tweaks another round of editing might have sorted out (the phrase nodded several times, weird overuse of smirk that seems to be a common feature of indie SFF, and so on), there’s plenty to enjoy here. I’m glad I had a chance to read this story and I want to know the rest!
Monster of the Dark follows the brutal life-story of the incarceration and training-into-a-deadly-weapon of a girl from the age of 6 to the age of 18. She has brief smoochy-times with a boy and that’s about it, because otherwise it would be kind of weird. The story was actually enhanced by the absence of this human component. An as-yet unmade Ncuti Gatwa Doctor Who episode out of a possible Ncuti Gatwa Sex Education episode on the sex-o-meter.
Despite the fact that the majority of casualties in this book are “constructs”, and death doesn’t seem to be permanent except when it is, there’s a reasonable amount of violence and dismemberment and blood and broken bones and an assortment of gore here. Also violence against children and some harrowing war crimes and atrocities. And, I repeat, the dog dies. Four flesh-gobbets out of a possible five.
This story has some tantalising hints-of-larger-setting pseudo-WTF, and some kind-of-annoying-story-rules pseudo-WTF, but none of the rich, greasy WTF buttercream that we come to the science-fiction genre brandishing our WTF-o-meters for. Despite this, I was well satisfied with the complexity of the worldbuilding and the overall mystery of how this strange galaxy of alien species and human military agencies came about. I am mashing that Do You Want To Know More button, even though the WTF-o-meter is giving Monster of the Dark a mere Doogie Howser M.D. out of a possible Doogie Howser M.D. dressed in a Space Gestapo uniform.
My Final Verdict
A great and well-told introduction to a compelling character. The intimate-focus-against-huge-backdrop structure kind of got its payoff at the end, the vertigo of freedom and possibilities, but I was still left feeling like opportunities had been missed. Maybe more could have been made of Carmen’s door opening for her, and her never having tried to open it before? That felt like a moral. For all that this book was not inside my comfort (or maybe even interest) zone in terms of its premise and plot, though, I was fascinated by the characters and the setting, and it was an engaging and fun read. I am certainly interested in finding out where it goes from here. Three stars seems unnecessarily harsh given the subjective nature of my complaints, so I will give Monster of the Dark four stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale.
 Not actually called that – I was just unable to separate this agency from the Psi Corps in Babylon 5, and Janus the handler was Bester from that moment on. The story didn’t actually suffer as a result.
 Really? There’s no solution to the bioelectric field problem? Gloves, for example? And it doesn’t happen when Clairvoyants kiss? Or it does happen and they don’t care? So why does it make such a huge difference when Carmen has a nightmare and gaaaah…
 That was a bit of convenient off-screen narrative right there, more unbelievable the more you think about it, but I still liked it. And yes, we’re getting multiple footnotes in this one.