Storyteller, director, writer, and fantastic playlist maker Lauren Shippen’s second YA novel release is just around the corner. A Neon Darkness is a character-driven story that will focus on Damien, one of the more troubled characters. Nerds and Beyond was fortunate enough to get an advanced reader copy through NetGalley to review.
A Neon Darkness is Shippen’s second novel based on The Bright Sessions podcast world. Where The Infinite Noise focused on Caleb Michaels and Adam Hayes’ story, this time, it goes to a more complicated and darker route. We get a glimpse and origin story into the complex character of Robert Gorham and how he becomes and embraces the name Damien. She introduces us to LGBTQ+ characters and diverse characters that defy typical stereotypes. They have conversations about sexuality, religion, emotions, trauma, and life in general. If you have not listened to The Bright Sessions podcast, no worries, you will not be lost. These books are meant to be standalone stories. The beautiful cover art of the book was once again done by talented artist Victo Ngai.
If you are not familiar with Shippen’s work, pull up a chair. She created and wrote the popular audio drama The Bright Sessions, which had four seasons from 2015 to 2018. The podcast was carried on in The AM Archives, which she executive produced, and soon The College Tapes following Caleb and Adam. She co-produced the award-winning Passenger List and wrote the audio adaptation of the popular comic MARVELS. In 2019, she released her first YA novel, The Infinite Noise, and has a third book on the horizon, which will focus on a dream walker named Rose. Shippen is certainly busy!
There will be spoilers beyond this point.
“I’m not solely responsible. I can’t be. Because if I am — if I actually took ownership over the things I’ve done — I’m not sure I could live with the person I am. But I have to live with him. So, it has to be everybody else’s fault.”
When we first meet young Robert, he is leaving Las Vegas after winning a lot of money. Not that he needs it or will use it, but more on that in a minute. The more time he spends somewhere, the more people notice his “luck” and start to ask questions or dig into it. That is why he is always on the move traveling the country alone. Robert is the type of person that can still walk away with it all, even after walking under a ladder with a black cat in front of him, breaking a mirror on Friday the 13. Luck has nothing to do with it. Robert Gorham is unique, unusual, or Atypical. Whichever way it is described, he has a special ability: the power of persuasion. He can make you do what he wants by making you want it as much as he does if you are in a certain proximity. If he is curious and wants to know more about something and wants you to tell him, you have no second thought. If he wants the villa, penthouse suite, a mansion, he gets it without paying a cent. He is used to getting his way all the time without any repercussions. But he decided to go to Los Angeles because he wants to see the ocean. Robert has no idea he is about to find and lose what he has been searching for since he was a kid.
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During the story, he meets a group of people that have abilities and are like him. Robert is in shock. He has never met anyone like him before. Suddenly he doesn’t feel as alone. With not having many interactions with people, let alone having any friends, his first meeting with the older Unusuals did not go over well. Or even later exchanges for that matter. But eventually, they take him under their wing, and Robert finds himself having friends that are like a family, and he likes it. But the further into the story we go, the more it seems that this friendship is a product of his wanting. It gives a Stockholm syndrome. Do they feel what they do because it is true or because of him controlling them? He says he can’t tell when he is using his ability, but is that true? You want to give him the benefit of the doubt, but that only goes so far.
The characters that Shippen introduces us to are Indah, a bartender with an interesting sense; Neon, who is very electric; Marley, that can see into the past; and Blaze, the kidnapped friend that makes fire. The way they are introduced and the few things we learn, you cannot help but want to know more about them.
As a character, Robert’s arc is genuinely emotional. He sees himself as the protagonist of his story, but what he is really doing is transforming into Damien and becoming the antagonist. He wants to be a good person, but his actions are selfish and manipulative, wanting to be the group’s main focus. The more obsessive he becomes in wanting them all to stay and be together, the more Damien’s moral compass points to becoming the villain. I do love that Shippen doesn’t justify his actions or put reason to them in her writing. He is a character that is not presented as likable. But part of you still feels for him, especially when he does seek out therapy. He shows moments of wanting to change but takes no ownership of any of his actions. He just doesn’t change for the better. He gets darker. One thing is for sure as he leaves Los Angeles in the rear-view mirror, Robert is gone and buried. Damien is here to stay.
You can pre-order A Neon Darkness now for its release on September 29.