Representation: Queer Protagonists, Bisexual, Gay, PoC
Genres: Fantasy, Queer Protagonists, Urban Fantasy
Buy on Amazon, The Book Depository
Supernatural meets Stranger Things in award-winning author S. A. Hunt’s Burn the Dark, first in the Malus Domestica horror action-adventure series about a punk YouTuber on a mission to bring down witches, one vid at a time.
Robin is a YouTube celebrity gone-viral with her intensely-realistic witch hunter series. But even her millions of followers don't know the truth: her series isn’t fiction.
Her ultimate goal is to seek revenge against the coven of witches who wronged her mother long ago. Returning home to the rural town of Blackfield, Robin meets friends new and old on her quest for justice. But then, a mysterious threat known as the Red Lord interferes with her plans….
“Brilliant!” —Jonathan Maberry, New York Times bestselling author
Burn the Dark was first self-published back in 2015, and published this January by Tor. I actually got to read a bit of the self-pubbed edition, so I know that Hunt tuned down the horror and gore for the new version, for which I’m grateful. The original prologue was nightmarish.
But even this new edition is still very much on the horror end of the spectrum. The premise is fantastic – Robin is a Youtuber shooting a series featuring herself as witch-hunter, only the entire thing is real – no need for a special-effects budget when witches are throwing real magic at you, I guess! I loved this concept so much – it’s just sneakily brilliant, and a really clever way for Robin to make herself enough money to support her witch-hunting road-tripping across the USA. But it’s not an easy life she’s built for herself – the witches in this series are properly terrifying, women who’ve given their hearts to the Sumerian goddess Ereshkigal (which, major points to Hunt for using Sumerian mythology for their worldbuilding! Don’t get to see that nearly often enough) in return for supernatural powers. Some of which give the whole ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’ saying a…very different spin.
The book begins with Robin returning to her old hometown, where her mother was murdered and child!Robin placed into a mental hospital for calling it like she saw it. She reconnects with an old friend and makes some new ones, but she’s here to take out the very old, very powerful coven that killed her mother – and she’s not going to be distracted.
Except for how she totally gets distracted, as what looks pretty black and white to begin with rapidly becomes far more complicated.
To be honest, Burn the Dark was a bit too horror-y for my usual tastes; Hunt doesn’t flinch away from the grotesque and the gore, making it very clear that the magic here is of the proper fairytale variety – dark and fucked-up. I felt my gorge rise more than once. And there were a few too many plotlines running alongside each other – the ring, the dryad, the coven, the serial killer, the kid and his dad moving to town, Robin’s mother’s secrets…even though most of them were all tied together by the end, it felt pretty messy. Which is why it’s so strange that I was also kind of bored – it sounds like it should have been action-packed, but I actually kept putting the book down and wandering to something else because it took so long for things to really get moving. Although it helped that we got some flashbacks from Robin, and I really like how the exposition was handled.
All that said, I really liked the characters and Hunt’s writing – there’s something quietly lyrical about it, kind of soothing even when something monstrous is going on. And even if it felt a bit messy, there’s no arguing that the book wrapped up with a lot of important questions left hanging open, questions I’m invested in enough to want answered. I guess Burn the Dark really felt like the opening to a trilogy/series – like now that the story’s established and we know all the players, the game’s all set to really start with the next book. Luckily, we don’t have long to wait – two more books of the series are being released this year, and I already have the sequel pre-ordered.
If you like your fantasy on the dark side with diverse and very human characters, then you definitely ought to give this one a go. Readers with weak stomachs might want to skip and find something a bit gentler.