Child of television.
When I was told AJ Scudiere’s Under Dark Skies was a “supernatural crime thriller” and then read that it involved “the FBI’s secretive division, NightShade” I immediately thought X-Files. When it is revealed that some of the main characters in the book had supernatural abilities, Angel Investigations popped into my head.
Nightshade is the path Angel, the spinoff from Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, should have taken. The writers had already introduced the notion of a government conspiracy through Riley and the Initiative on Buffy. The Initiative was a government-sponsored research and military operation that hunted supernatural creatures and Riley was Buffy’s new boyfriend. It would have been interesting to have Angel and his team join with a similar government-sponsored agency to combat the show’s main source of villainy, Wolfram and Hart, and maybe even members of the Initiative, as a competing government agency.
Unfortunately, Angel’s writers chose to go with a more over-the-top storyline that had Angel take over Wolfram and Hart which leads to the series ending with a demon invasion of Los Angeles. Years later, writer Brian Lynch would provide an interesting vision of the events that followed after the show’s finale in his comic book series, Angel: After the Fall. The entire city of Los Angeles is sent to Hell and Angel, the show’s title character, must find a way to bring it back to earth.
There are angels in AJ Scudiere’s book too. But these are the kind that religious cult leaders use to bend believers to their will. Joseph Hayden Baxter is the leader of the City of God, a religious cult suspected of kidnapping children, murder, and drug dealing. Joseph was raised by his parents in another religious cult, Zion’s Gates, but left after being suspected of murdering several of the other members. Newly recruited NightShade agents, Eleri Eames and Donovan Heath, are assigned to investigate Joseph and his City of God when a mysterious woman shows up at a hospital and identifies a child from an old unsolved missing persons case before disappearing herself.
As their investigation progresses, AJ reveals that each of the agents and some of their peers have special — supernatural — abilities. when Eleri dreams she “sees” what the victims of the crimes she investigates see. This ability helps her solve those crimes but also gets her committed to a mental hospital. Donovan has fared better. He uses his heightened senses to determine cause of death in his work as a medical examiner. He also has a bigger secret that most readers can guess early on in the story. The claw marks depicted on the cover of the book are a dead giveaway too. Which is a shame because I couldn’t get the image of Wolfcop out of my head.
The challenge of writing a story with heroes possessing abilities above the mortal scope is the temptation to overuse them. AJ successfully balances Donovan’s super-abilities with its limitations — no posable thumbs, no pockets, no human speech. Eleri’s issues with her abilities are stated right from the beginning — her stint at the mental hospital, her inability to stay out of the minds of the victims and the criminals she investigates. There is a moment in the book where she explodes at Donovan for secretly trying to exploit her ability. She tells him that she not only sees through her victims eyes but she also feels what they go through. It is very painful and frustrating because she cannot reap the rewards of her trauma. No court would accept “I dreamed it” as testimony and when she did reveal her dreams as the source of her knowledge, her colleagues committed her to a mental ward.
In addition to their “super powers,” Westerfield, their director, has raised them above the law. As NightShade, Eleri and Donovan do not have to adhere to the same rules that other agents must when building a case. He informs them bluntly that their “assignment is to gather evidence and, if warranted, once you are convinced of the necessity, remove Baxter.”
However, Eleri and Donovan are uncomfortable exercising their NightShade privileges. It seems like it is important to them to follow the same rules as their colleagues than to close the case quickly. Perhaps it’s a result of Eleri being persecuted for being different or Donovan being raised to hide his difference or maybe it is simply a result of their FBI training, both agents are hesitant to take advantage of the “free pass” Westerfield has given them.
There is no shortage of supernatural crime or detective series. If you do a Google search for the term, it generates about 353,000 results. The Dresden Files, which I haven’t read but whose TV series I’ve enjoyed, was the most recognizable result. Goodreads has a shelf dedicated to supernatural detective books. What sets AJ’s book apart from the others is her narrator. Under Dark Skies is told in the third person by an omniscient narrator who occasionally provides commentary on a situation or a character.
In her first face-to-face encounter with Westerfield, Eleri asks how much her new partner, Donovan, knows about her hospitalization. Westerfield replies, “Only what was in the docket, anything else?” Eleri says, “No sir. Thank you.”
The AJ’s narrator uses this exchange to provide her audience with some insight into Eleri’s character:
She always said thank you. Even when she did’t mean it. It was bred into her bones like so many other things she’d inherited. She was beginning to wonder what her genetics would say if someone could really read them.
AJ Scudiere’s narrator in Under Dark Skies speaks with a subtly descriptive voice that helps set the book apart from the others. In the first chapter, Eleri is described as “unusual looking, a byproduct of a heritage she wasn’t supposed to mention.” Later on, towards the middle of the story, Donovan’s raised eyebrow is given additional oomph: “The wrong thing to say given the way his eyebrows climbed.” And there is scene where Donovan is searching for Eleri in the FBI’s “rabbit’s warren of rooms.”
Overall, Under Dark Skies was an exciting to read book. This is not to say that there were not cringeworthy moments when resolutions and breaks in the case came a little too conveniently. However, the narrator’s descriptive style made it easy to overlook those moments.